Weather's gorgeous, so I head down the tree-lined gravel path along the lake to the Melzi gardens, slight breeze off the lake. Six years vacationing in the same town, six years on course for the Melzi gardens. I've imagined the walk for weeks in advance, and I see the entry, long trail of gray gravel, plane trees stretching ahead as if in cadence, green mountains in the distance, lake rippling endlessly, extending out of sight. I pay the admission fee, take the path, and look for a bench to sit on to consciously absorb the surroundings. If I don't the words will carry me away and I'll only dimly see where I am through the noise in my head. Benches near the path, none in use, views of the lake, clean air, occasional crunch of gravel under the feet of passersby. I choose one, trees on both sides of my field of vision, and let my eyes rest on the lake. After several minutes I close my eyes and visualize the water, words lurking in the background, but I don't hear them at every moment.
When I'm as relaxed as I'm going to be I get up, much to see, paths to walk at different elevations with broader views. I stop at the octagonal open-air temple, four open doorways, walk inside, alone in the temple with air and lake, enjoying the space around me, glance over my shoulder to see if approaching gravel crunchers will turn toward me, but they go by. No boats are passing, clear sight of the mountains on the opposite side, no engine noise, movement of trees, breeze blowing through them and over me.
I continue on my way, on the path to the villa, small pond there with lily pads, not as spectacular as the pond at Monet's gardens but not a fraction as crowded. Here you can take in the lily pads in peace, no orgy of tourists snapping photos, a lake view in front of you and the villa behind. No camera with me, hands free, alone, my eyes guiding me. The windows of the villa are shuttered, the house closed to the public, and I wonder what it looks like inside and think that as many times as I've passed through I might be recognized, someone inside the villa might push open a set of shutters and invite me in for a look. It's you again, we've missed you, come in for a glass of wine and a chat. You're alone this time, tell us about it, we want to know. I turn away from the daydream and make my way to the entry on the Loppia side.
The small structure where you pay to enter is unoccupied, as it has been on every visit I've made. The woman who works there sits nearby in a chair under a shade tree, a book in hand, the same woman every year, I'm pretty sure, and I smile when she looks up, glad to see her still reading and soaking up the shade. Since I don't speak her language I gesture that I want to go out and later come
back in. She gets it, nods, and her attention returns to her book.
I walk to the restaurant just outside the gate, too early for me for lunch, but I park myself at a small table on their narrow patio and order a beer. Across the street is the covered veranda where they serve food and to the left a small marina. I'll eat here one night for dinner but for now I sip my beer and look out at the veranda, the tables set, a handful occupied, greenery on top of the pergola and surrounding the dining area. I watch the boats idle in the marina and the swaying trees above the walls of the garden. Occasionally a car drives slowly by on the road between the restaurant and the veranda. Only one other table on the patio, unoccupied, and the two empty chairs at the table add to my sense of being at ease, no strangers asking me where I'm from and where I'm staying and for how long.
After I've swallowed the last of my beer I put enough money to cover the bill under my glass and return to the gardens. The woman with the book glances up when she hears the gravel and then continues reading, and I ascend to one of the higher paths, vegetation dense in some places around the path, cooler and damper, different outlooks. I enjoy the effort of the climb, feeling the air, pausing to look around, no one approaching.
When I reach the point where I can see the temple I stop and try to absorb the vista well enough to recall it when I'm at home, not like a photo but as if it were alive around me. A couple that could be more or less my age appears on the low path and the woman is drawn to the temple, moves toward it and goes up the shallow steps. She stands in the middle of the temple and looks at the lake, her companion walking up behind her and standing near but not too close, giving her space to feel the openness. She turns to her left, ninety degrees, wind in her long hair, tilts her chin up and lifts her arms as if spreading her wings. I take a sudden step toward her, my leg hits a shrub, and I almost fall. I close my eyes, the sight of her arms in the air, her head angled slightly up, crushes me. Yet I open my eyes and look at her again and see that her arms remain aloft. I shift my feet to get my balance. She at last drops her arms and I let out a breath, her lowered arms have released me. I start walking again, drained by the sight of the couple, especially her, in fact only her.
I follow the path down, over a bridge that crosses a larger pond with lily pads, a bench close by, but I won't sit in it today, another time, the gravel path leads me out. I take the promenade along the lake, but I'm suddenly worn out and take a seat on a bench that seems to be waiting for me to crash on it, no hurry, catch my breath. The couple is unlikely to emerge from the gardens and walk in front of me; they've probably just entered.
A man strides by, between me and the lake, walking much faster and more intently than anyone else around, stirring up a racket with the gravel, heading away from town, but instead of continuing he pivots and turns around and paces back in the direction he came from, a stormy look on his twisted face. I expect him to again turn and come this way, and after covering a long distance I do see him reverse and start the process over. Whatever rooms he lives or stays in are
not big enough to contain what's bottled up inside him, and the closer he gets to me the more annoying he becomes. I don't want his trampling in my head, and I see that other people are beginning to take notice of his air of upheaval. Someone should tap him on the shoulder and ask how long he intends to stir up dust, but no one gets near him. I'm not ready to get to my feet. I'm stuck with his pacing and I can only do my best to ignore him. I close my eyes, feel my breath. I stay this way until it comes to me that I don't hear him, he's gone, inner forces have carried him away.
Still, the pacer lingers in my mind and I ask myself why. The sound of his footsteps stays with me, and despite my aversion, my mind joins with him and paces along on the same path. I curse him and blot out his image with the lake. I stand and walk closer to it, watch a ferry float past, someone on deck waving. I almost took off straight toward the woman in the temple, get a grip, what would she have thought if she'd seen me?
I walk away from the memory, return to the hotel, the same hotel where I've stayed for years and always in the same type of room, lake view, small terrace, large bed. In the room I shed my clothes and put on my robe. I open the terrace door and stretch myself out on the bed, on my back, eyes shut, trying to sleep, but my mind won't leave me alone.
I see the pacer imposing his private turmoil into the tranquil landscape, blurring my view of the lake and the mountains beyond. I see myself in his shoes, pacing toward the woman in the temple but thinking better of it and walking away from her before turning back. I tell myself she is not the woman I'm thinking of, though something still draws me to her as if she were. Could it have been her? Can I allow myself to think along these lines? Did the staff at the reception desk look at me strangely when I walked in? They could have been reacting to my harassed look, or did they want to tell me something, possibly that she had arrived at the hotel? For a moment I imagine her lying next to me, but I don't let the thought take hold.
I stand and go to the terrace, sit in the chair and look out at the lake. One of my neighbors is standing on the terrace to my left. She glances at my robe, but I don't look at her, don't nod or say hello. I gaze at the lake, or try to, but the image that comes to me is again the woman at the temple, a little too heavy and the hair too long to be her. But people do let their hair grow and they do gain weight. Her face was partially obscured by sunglasses, but did something in me know it was her? I've never seen her husband. I'd made a decision not to form an image of them together and never attempted to find out anything about him, including what he looks like, but now I want to know if it was him, to see him and to see her. I could dress and go down to the front desk and let them get a look at me and see what happens. Maybe one or two of them worked at the hotel when we stayed here as a couple. One of them could remember, though it's been a few years, and the person who remembers could tell the other staff. They'd likely assume we hadn't planned to stay here at the same time and they'd wonder how we'd react to the sight of each other. How would it be at
the breakfast buffet if we found ourselves in close proximity at the coffee pots or the eggs and sausage? Would she feel obligated to ask me to join them? Would I be able to stop looking at her? Would I be able to swallow my food? I'd become obsessed with what they were saying and thinking. I didn't know if I could go down to breakfast with these thoughts in mind, unless I went down first thing. If she is here she'd never come down early, she'd have to drink two cups of coffee in the room before she got going. But do I want to spend my vacation dodging them without knowing if there's anyone to dodge? On the other hand, can I put the possibility of her being here aside? Will she and her husband emerge at any moment on the terrace to my right, the sight of her knocking me out of my chair? Maybe I should have charged down the hill and confronted her, looked her square in the face to settle the matter, suffering momentary embarrassment instead of being left with doubts and questions that plague me. Did the woman resemble her? Was there something about her height, gait, and shape that struck me as familiar at a subconscious level, something that provoked my feet to move until the shrub halted their momentum and snapped me halfway out of my trance?
My sense of vulnerability mounts as I wait for the terrace door on my right to open. I rise and hurry into the room. I put on my clothes, take the elevator down, and ask the woman at the desk if I have any messages. She asks my name and room number, does some checking, then says she has nothing for me. Her face looks straightforward to me, no concealed narrative showing through, so I go outside for a walk, this time away from the Melzi gardens.
I don't get far before I decide to sit on a bench; the idea of hiking up the hill wearies me. I have trouble focusing my attention on the lake, pedestrians walk in front of me and bugs land on my face, but mainly my preoccupations distract me, one of which is where I can safely eat dinner without running into her and her husband. I couldn't go to our favorite places, which are also my favorite places, because those are the exact places she'd be most likely to reserve a table. I'd find it difficult to eat, might have to bolt, and an early exit wouldn't be enough to cure me. I could feel compelled to leave town rather than face the prospect of other chance meetings. If we saw each other again would she think I was stalking her? What would I say? I can't imagine a conversation with her and her husband, though there is nothing I want more than to speak with her. On both of our visits here we took a tour of the lake in a water taxi. I'd thought of taking the tour this year, having skipped it on my last three trips. What if she and her husband were to book the same tour at the same time? The boat would seem unbearably crowded, we'd never be able to keep our minds on our surroundings, we'd be submerged in our thoughts. Would her husband look at me and then at her and then at me and so forth, wondering what he should think as he swiveled his head? I wouldn't know what I should be thinking as I watched his head swivel and neither would she. I'd be trying not to look at her, she'd be trying not to look at me, but we'd look anyway, if only fleetingly. I might as well leave town as torment myself with fantasy encounters. I'll book the water taxi, what are the
odds she'll be on the boat, and after it leaves the dock I'll be assured that for the tour's duration I won't see them and I can savor my time on the lake.
As I sit with the lake in full view I ask myself why I return here every year. I avoid saying her name to myself, avoid remembering her image, but I repeatedly return to a place with memories of her. Are my fears of seeing her some twisted form of wishful thinking? She tried and failed to endure me, grew tired of my agitation. Her body, she said, was no longer with me. She couldn't accept the way I was and couldn't convince herself that I'd ever be any different. I might be on my best behavior for a period of time, but inside I'd always be the same. My mind could never quit being itself, she said, but not in an unkind way. It sounded as if she felt cured of an ailment, the ailment being me, or as if her body had rejected a transplanted organ. She had no hostility in her, nothing but kindness and compassion, and I couldn't disagree with anything she'd said. You're always telling yourself the wrong story, she told me, a statement that has stayed with me. Her assessment of what was good for her seemed painfully true, but I knew she was good for me and I couldn't accept that she'd given up on us.
Earlier when I'd passed through the hotel lobby I remembered an evening we'd called a taxi to take us to the restaurant by the Melzi gardens. I went outside to wait for the taxi three or four minutes before it was scheduled, looking up and down the street and checking my watch. She sat in the lobby reading a newspaper she'd picked up off a table. He'll let us know when he gets here, she said, suggesting that I sit with her and relax. By the time the taxi arrived I was wound up and she was calm and fresh, though somewhat disturbed by the tension I'd injected into the air.
We'd been to the Melzi gardens for the first time that morning and she'd loved the place from the beginning. I loved being there too, but my thoughts kept running between the gardens and their surroundings. When we reached the temple she went to the center of it and spread her arms like wings and closed her eyes and let the wind blow over her. I could see the beauty of the temple and I felt the wind on my skin, but not with the same directness that she did. I watched her, wondering what it must be like, and I turned my head, not wanting to distract her from that moment, a moment I couldn't forget.
My way of living seemed inferior to hers. After all, what were we here for? Not that asking the question changed the way I was. And today I saw the woman drawn to the temple, spreading her arms, and I started toward her. Had I, in some way, been waiting for that moment? It made sense that she'd return to a place she loved and that she'd remember standing in the temple.
I resume my walk, hike up the hill to the twelfth-century church off the piazza, a good place to sit quietly, get away from people, a few tourists passing through, one or two townspeople praying, but high ceilings, open space around you, no souvenir shop selling CDS of hymns. I sit in an empty pew, no one else seated near me. I hear a couple approaching from behind, and I don't turn and expose my face to them but look at the stone floor. When they pass I take a peek, the woman is not her, too young.
I return my attention to the floor, my fear of seeing her wearing on me. I need to remember not to hold my breath in self-inflicted suspense, nothing moving around me, watch the floor or the altar, settle into the peacefulness of the church, the place is a refuge, don't fight against the reason I came here.
I hear another couple coming up the aisle, hear a voice just above a whisper and my breath catches in my throat before I know it. I cut my eyes toward them as they pass and see the couple from the Melzi gardens, their eyes on the altar. I look closer and see that it is her, hair longer, pulled back, her ear and cheekbone, I know that the ear and cheekbone belong to her. I have to get out, but I don't want to bolt suddenly and stir up a wind or stumble over the pew. I don't know if I have enough command of myself to rise without making a sound, but I have to get up, on my feet, careful with my footsteps, eyes on the door.
I'm in the sun, as I walk imagining myself on the ferry with my bags, taxi to the train station, but I stop. I remember the first time I called her, out of practice calling anyone, didn't know what I would say, but I knew I was calling, I had to, there was no telling myself I wouldn't, I accepted my fate, I was going to call her. And now I'm going to stand here waiting, I can't walk down that hill and forget I've seen her, I'd run around looking for her again and that would be ridiculous, even I know that.
After a few minutes I'm afraid I'm sweating too much, it's warm but not that warm, but come hell or high sweat I'm staying. And then the church door opens, here she is, her husband a step ahead of her, blocking her line of sight. I take a step to the side so that she can see me. Her eyes are on him at first, but she senses that someone is looking at her, me, she sees me. I'm shaking, but my feet are rooted. Her husband doesn't know yet that his wife has ceased following him, but then he sees my eyes on her and he looks over his shoulder and sees that she's farther behind him than expected. She notices that he has turned and she starts toward him, or is it toward me? She catches up with him, they speak, he takes her arm without giving me another look, without showing a reaction to the news, admirable restraint. Undercurrents are showing in her, the sight of me soaking in, and I see a smile coming as they get closer. I'm not following you, I say, I come here every year. He smiles, says his first name, which I can't quite hear, and offers his hand. Big shoulders, big hand, I shake it, iron grip, but he doesn't try to yank my arm off at the elbow, the soreness will wear off, I'll recover. I've heard a lot about you, he says, and the words idle in the air. We exchange small talk about where we're staying, and I barely hear my own voice, but it sinks in that they're in a different hotel, one just down the road from mine. He can tell I'm assessing him and I know he's assessing me, no animosity showing in him and I hope none in me as I attempt to determine how strong the connection is between them. It's safer to look at him first than at her, but it won't last, she's looking at me, and when I look at her I can't see anything else around her. I can't tell her I miss her, nothing I can think of to say seems
appropriate with him there, and I think he senses it. Then he surprises me.
I'll let you two talk, he says and puts his hand on my shoulder. I'll see you at the hotel, he tells her. He kisses her on the cheek and leaves us. You've got a nice guy there, I say. He is a nice guy. We've been seeing each other for about two months. You're not married? I got a divorce, not too long ago. Not long enough. I hadn't heard. How have you been? she asks. Being here makes me think about you. More than usual.
I don't want to let her see me cry, not now, and I don't want her to hear me howling, nor do I want to hear myself howling, and something like faraway howling is going on inside me.
I've been the way I always am, I admit, no point in lying, she'd know it if I did. You're still with me, she says. It's almost the same thing as being together. Not exactly. It sounds like it. She doesn't disagree, which gives me hope. You thought we were the wrong story. But do we always know for sure which story is the wrong one? You thought your husband was the right story, didn't you, but he wasn't.
You could be right, she answers, and she doesn't look as if her body's about to reject an organ. Did your boyfriend ever compete in the shot put? He did in college. How did you know? Just a guess, something about his grip. Has he ever picked you up in one hand and held you on top of his right shoulder? No, but it's funny, I've imagined him doing just that. Maybe I've left a mark on you. Maybe you have. Looking back, you do seem funnier. I never knew you thought I was funny at all. Just barely, she says. She takes one long step and embraces me, her eyes letting me in closer, her chin over my shoulder, and my arms are around her, my chin is up, a howl rising from my chest. I stifle the howl before I make a spectacle of both of us, but more of it is ready to come out, maybe when I'm in the room and the sound's turned up on the television.
She lets me go and starts away, not because of the howl, which seems to tickle her, but why the rush? I want to say something to make her stay.
I'll think about it, she says, raising her arm toward me, not like a wave but more like imagining that she's still touching me.
I can tell you one good thing about me, I say, but she knows what it is before I say it.
I know you do, she says, and I watch her as she walks down the hill.
I stay in my room that night and order room service for dinner. I pick at my food and put the tray aside. The situation may work out, I have to wait, but for how long and how long are they staying? I can't get to sleep, can't stop rolling over, on my side, on my stomach, on my back, on my side again. I get up and pace, and after a while the phone rings and a voice says the guests below have complained that my footsteps are keeping them awake. I sit up in bed thinking that whatever will happen is not part of a plan, nor was seeing her again, nor was her divorce, I'm at the mercy of circumstance and whatever mark I've left on her that could affect what she decides. She knows I'm waiting, but I hope she won't rush her decision, don't leave me again, I won't come back here alone.
At breakfast I get the far corner table on the terrace, the one most distant from the food and drink tables. One small plate of food, don't want to eat much, and I watch birds land on nearby tables when food is left unattended, their beaks pecking at plates, picking up pieces of bread and flying off. If she comes now she can guess where to find me, but should I stay in the hotel all day, not knowing if she'll come at all? If I leave I could miss her and I can't go to her hotel and seek her out. She has to make up her mind at her own pace and we can't have the boyfriend hovering around us when she tells me. I'll stay at the hotel or close by, that's the plan until I grow tired of stewing and then I'll see about taking a walk.
I don't go straight up to my room after breakfast but go out the side door where I can see her hotel down the road. I don't see her coming, not on the lake side or on the side with the shops. Will thinking of my mental processes weigh on her and work against me? What will she be letting herself in for if she takes me back? Can she be with me without a cumulative exhaustion overtaking her? She will come, I don't know, out of my hands, ease up on the grinding.
I get myself back into the hotel and up the elevator. My room has been cleaned, my bed made. I sit on the bed and make an effort to steady myself. I have to put on a good face for her, I must control myself or I could scare her away. I don't want to go anywhere else at the moment, I want to be here, to be still, doing nothing, the urge to pace is currently dormant, don't imagine her being back, let the situation unfold.
The phone startles me when I hear it. I pick it up, the front desk tells me she's here and wants to know if she can come up. I say yes and hang up, my mind loud and racing. I'm at the door when she knocks, and I pull it open and step back, don't crowd her, swing the door shut. We walk into the room and she studies my face before speaking. I don't know if I should offer her a chair, unsure if she plans a discussion or a statement. We're both nervous and I can't hide it, I want to hear her voice.
I told him I wouldn't get in bed with you or kiss you on the mouth. I have to consider him too.
I can't believe she said that. It's not like her, but I take it that her feelings could be as raw as mine.
I'm willing to try, she says, momentum gathered in her words. How much longer will you be in town? We're leaving tomorrow. I can't think right now, but it's less than a week. Call me when you get back. I've missed you, she says, her composure wavering as if she's made an admission.
I go to the bed and sit on its edge, gulping air. She fills a glass in the bathroom and brings it to me. I gulp the water down and then I'm through with gulping for the time being. I don't want to tell her I've been a wreck without her. She already knows anyway, better than I do probably.
She takes the glass from my hand, where it has been wobbling, puts it on the nightstand and sits beside me. She holds me and I hold her. I feel lucky, I say, my voice surprisingly strong and clear. I like it that you said that, she says, her hand on my head as she releases me. She stands and walks to the door. You need some time to settle down, and I do too. But don't forget, she says before shutting the door, you'll be with me again soon.
I don't want her to go, but I know she's right, I need time to adjust. She often knows and understands me better than I do. I'd wanted Lana to answer one question as we sat together on the bed, but I was afraid to ask. I wanted to know what she could possibly see in me.