Door of Light (14)
Taking that last step
This megalopolis of high achievers with a Third World underbelly. This monument to conspicuous consumption, which had taken one of the most beautiful pieces of real estate on the planet and trashed it with slums and freeways and smog. This glittering Oz, which thought of itself as the one sure place where dreams could come true, but which instead had become home to the vast throng of those who had failed, or hadn’t yet realized they had failed, to achieve their dreams.
I’d always thought the best view of the city was from Mulholland Drive at night — everything reduced to light and dark, one hiding the multitude of the city’s sins, the other in its innumerable star-like expanse promising redemption.
Miranda and I had spent the previous year traveling all over Los Angeles County, seeking out representative samples of Homo sapiens. My idea was to assemble a collection of photographs that I would call “People of the Twentieth Century.” The title was a somewhat ironic reference to a similarly titled collection of photographs from the first half of the century by the great German photographer, August Sander, who had spent his entire life photographing people from all walks of life living near his native city of Cologne, aspiring to create a photographic portrait of his age.
My plan was to adapt Sander’s techniques but on a much smaller scale (Sander had taken tens of thousands of photos, I would take far fewer). I found an antique large-format camera, which I had adapted to use a special monochrome film in sheets measuring eight inches by ten inches. Then we took this rather bulky contraption out on the road. I tried to intervene as little as possible in the process of capturing an image. Every shot was of a standard type — the full-length subject, the full frontal view. I left my subjects wherever I happened to find them and let them take whatever pose they desired. My only goal was to make sure they were centered in the frame. The final result was a cross section of humanity — teachers, janitors, store owners, stock brokers, gang members, priests, physicians, movie actors, prison inmates, housewives, homeless people, film producers, sales clerks, attorneys, politicians, institutionalized mental patients, grave diggers, and so on.
The work was exceptionally time-consuming, and by the time I had finished I was in a state of near exhaustion. None of it would have been possible without Miranda’s help and encouragement. Toward the end, when I had nearly given up, it was she who handled all the logistics of mounting a show, which opened in the fall at the Anton Gallery on North Doheny in Beverly Hills. We all had unreasonably high hopes. Despite excellent publicity, attendance was mediocre: if the general public came, they did so to see pictures of celebrities or to mingle with the celebrities themselves, who came not so much to see as to be seen.
Critical opinion was mixed. “Facile and obvious,” one reviewer said. Another compared me unfavorably to Leibovitz and Sherman. “This kind of objective, non-judgmental, documentary approach is very difficult to pull off,” a third said, concluding, “The attempt was courageous but ultimately doomed to failure.” But another wrote, “A fascinating collection that tries to extend Sander’s technique into the second half of our century — only time will tell whether it was a successful effort.” Time — something I was running out of.
So much backbreaking work so summarily dismissed was a serious disappointment and a blow to my confidence. Nonstop nose-to-the-grindstone had kept me sane. Now that I had time on my hands, I began to unravel. I had no interest in other projects and became moody, distracted, lethargic. Once again the world seemed tenuous and artificial. Once again I felt a profound sense of alienation from everyone and everything around me. I began wandering off in a kind of daze, like an Alzheimer’s patient, supposedly scouting “locations,” but ending up on park benches or buses, staring into space. “Zoe, you need to see a shrink!”
So I made peace with Dr. Paternoster and went back to seeing him on a weekly basis, trying not to antagonize him with my crazy theories of what was wrong with me. I listened to what he said and took his medicine. But I behaved badly and irresponsibly, especially with Miranda. I had hired her as an assistant and she had lived with me since moving from Tarzana three years before. We had gotten along well, but the frequency of our quarrels increased, and I could tell she wasn’t happy with her circumstances, not happy with me. I couldn’t really blame her. We came to the conclusion that it was time for her to strike out on her own.
“I owe you a lot,” she said, tears forming in her eyes.
“It works both ways,” I said. “You’ve been there for me.”
“But not now.”
“I never expected my friends to be martyrs.”
“I’m not going far away,” she said. “You just call and I’m there.”
When Miranda moved out, I had the house to myself. Nate had gone off to college in Chicago, where he was attending the Art Institute, having gradually come to his senses at the same time that he had come to terms with himself and his sexual orientation, at last becoming, as he once said, “comfortable in my own skin.” He had also discovered his life’s passion — art. He particularly liked stage and set design, and mapped out a plan for making that his career. I was very proud of him, especially for his courage in dealing openly and honestly with people and unafraid to proclaim himself a gay man, entitled to all the rights and respect that every straight man enjoyed in this homophobic land of the free, home of the brave.
Living alone, it occurred to me that I had no need to live in L.A. anymore. The city had outgrown its usefulness as a base of operations, and I had outgrown my love affair with it. We seemed estranged. I didn’t like how it had changed, and it didn’t seem to be too happy with me, either. We were a quarrelsome and cantankerous couple. Time for an amicable split. Time to move on, find a less complicated spot of earth to settle down upon. Miranda had suggested I check out New Mexico, and I did, eventually finding a ranch for sale outside Taos. I immediately bought the place and began sorting and packing the vast amount of detritus I had managed to accumulate over a lifetime.
All of this came to an end just before Christmas, when Nate was scheduled to return home for the holidays. My preparations for the move ended, my plans for the future ended, my life as it was and had been for the last twenty years ended. The telephone call was from a police officer in Chicago. The voice was calm and official and called me ma’am. “Yes, I’m his mother. Please tell me he’s all right!”
Nate wasn’t all right. He was in a hospital. He’d been injured in a fight. The officer said he had no further information. He gave me the name and number of the hospital, and, after a long, nerve-wracking wait, I was finally able to speak to a doctor. He also was calm and official. Nate had just come out of surgery. He had been beaten and stabbed. He had sustained serious injuries and had lost a great deal of blood. At the moment he was in stable but critical condition. I was advised to come there immediately.
The next available flight from LAX put me in Chicago five hours later. It was four in the morning when I arrived at his room. He was bandaged and attached to tubes and wires. He was unconscious — in an induced coma, I was told. A heart monitor’s pulsing blue line was positive indication that he was alive. I had tried to convince myself I had to be strong for his sake, but seeing his broken body on that bed was too much to bear. I fell into a fit of weeping, holding his hand against my cheek, wishing I could transfer my entire life force into him. Exchange my life for his. Had it been possible, I would have done it without a further thought. I cried until I had no more tears to shed, and then I decided I would not cry again. I would not let them see what they had done to me.
I spent the night in his room, sleeping in a chair. The next night, someone brought in a cot. Nate did not emerge from his coma. Another operation was ordered, this time to relieve pressure on his brain. A day later, a police officer arrived, hoping to take a statement. He wrote something in a notebook. I asked him if he had any further information about what had happened. Yes, he said. He said a group of drunken young men, neighborhood troublemakers, had taunted Nate in a bar called The Hangout, a dive on the city’s south side, and accused him of making a pass at one of them. Nate had responded in kind, and a fight had broken out. When the bartender threatened to call the police, the boys hauled Nate outside into an alley, where they continued to beat him until someone finally plunged a knife into his chest.
“There were plenty of witnesses,” the officer said. “We have the suspects in custody.”
“Why didn’t somebody do something?”
“They almost never do,” the cop said. “It’s a spectator sport.”
There were other visitors — the mayor, several city aldermen, a congressman. They all expressed their regret. They all promised that justice would be served. I paid no attention to what they said. Their reasons for coming had nothing to do with me or Nate. In addition to the expressions of outrage against such an outrageous crime, there were also the expressions of support for those who’d had the courage to teach a faggot a lesson he’d never forget. God was on their side because God hated faggots. A puzzle to me: the God whose very essence was love somehow managed to hate the very creatures he had made, in the way he had made them. If that was true, then he deserved to be crucified.
I stayed with Nate over a week until his heart finally gave out and he slipped back into the nothingness he had emerged from.
“I’m sorry,” the surgeon said. “We did everything possible. The injuries were just too massive. Even had he lived, his life would never have been the same.”
My misery was not assuaged.
By this time Nate was a celebrity, the son of a famous photographer, the country’s latest victim of a hate crime. When I emerged from the hospital, a clamoring scrum of reporters and cameramen was waiting for me. They all wanted a statement, they all wanted to know how I felt. I had no statement to give, and I had no intention of telling them how I felt, which was, quite simply, they could all go to hell, every one of them.
There were, I knew, things I had to do and a period of time I had to live through being as strong and resolute as I could. Bringing Nate’s body back to L.A., dealing with his grandparents, arranging for the funeral and cremation. I would do it all and do it well because that’s what Nate would have wanted. I focused all my attention on just this one thing, never thinking what I would do afterward. My life was over. There was no point in thinking about what I would do afterward. I didn’t give it a thought. I didn’t care about what happened to Nate’s murderers, I didn’t care what happened to me.
After the funeral, there were plenty of people who offered to help. I turned them all down. I was consumed by a sadness verging into regret, into self-loathing, that metastasized into a cosmic world-weariness, then into terminal despair. You are just a bug with big ideas. How could I possibly say I was not responsible? I was his mother. This was who I was. Cursed was I among women. I hated her. This freak. This caricature I was condemned to be.
I craved anonymity and would often go downtown and aimlessly walk the streets, as if looking for some obscure alley that would lead to a hidden door that would take me away from my life forever. Once, I ended up in a part of the city I had never been before, and I was soon lost. Rain began coming down — great dark curtains of rain. A drenching, dissolving, punishing rain, whipped by a cruel wind. I didn’t care. I wanted to be drenched, dissolved, punished. I kept on walking. There was no place I wanted to go. It was all one hateful world. I thought: there must be a gland that makes us able to ignore the grim realities of the world — pumping out some chemical that immunizes us from the pointlessness and cruelty of life. Every now and then, this chemical runs low and we suddenly realize what a miserable fix we’re in. Like waking up and finding yourself in prison, a life term ahead of you. It’s unbearable, unthinkable. So you tell yourself a lie: you say — things aren’t really this bad; it’s me, my defenses are down, I’m depressed, stressed out, maybe even a little crazy. It’s not the world, it’s me, someone’s twisted idea of fun.
“Scuse me, lady.”
A man had scuttled out of a doorway.
“Spare any change?”
I quickly crossed the street, heedless of the traffic. One car swerved and honked angrily at me. A hand shot out, giving me the finger. Then another splashed me with muddy water. I reached the other side of the street, filthy, shaking, cursing. I thought: this is reality — my reality. This is a snapshot of my life as it actually is without the props and sets, without the costumes and makeup and theatrical lighting. I kept on walking. After a while, lights shown behind me — I was in the middle of the street. I stopped. It was a cab. It pulled up alongside me. The cabbie leaned out his window.
“Are you okay, lady?”
“No,” I said, “I’m lost.”
He got out and helped me into the back seat.
It was almost four in the morning by the time I got back home. I didn’t want to turn on the lights, afraid of attracting attention. I just wanted to melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West. Not quite feeling myself. Not feeling quite myself. Quite. Not feeling. Myself.
When had I ever? I was tired of being myself. Sick to death of it. I sat on my living room floor in the dark, feeling like a driver going into a skid on an icy road. You wrestle with the wheel, but it’s no use — you crash head on. Everything goes black. I knew what I wanted to do and I was afraid. I could feel the poison in my veins. I tried calling Miranda — no answer. I tried calling Zavy O’Dwyer and got his answering machine. “Zavy, it’s me. I was just hoping we could talk. Never mind.” I tried calling Dr. Paternoster at home. The phone rang and rang, and then the housekeeper answered. Clearly, I’d gotten her out of bed.
“I need to speak to the doctor! This is an emergency.”
“Sorry, doctor not here,” the housekeeper said, sounding either sleepy or drunk.
I didn’t believe her. She was just protecting him. She was under orders not to wake him. “What do you mean he’s not there? Where is he?”
“Doctor dead,” she said.
I didn’t believe her. “Dead? When?”
“Yesterday. I come in and find him myself. He have plastic bag over his head.”
“He killed himself?”
“No. Accident. Doing bad thing.”
I hung up and tried Harold Bloom. No answer, just voice mail: press one to leave a message, press two to hear the requirements for the semester paper, press three if your characterization is slipping and you need a critical opinion, press four if you’ve reached the end of a long corridor, opened a door, and found yourself staring into the Void, press five . . .
I threw phone down on the floor, a useless stage prop.
Who says you have to stay in the game to the very end? It should be like chess: once it’s clear you can’t win, you resign and avoid a tedious series of futile moves. So who says you have to stick it out? Your body, that gutless chump? Who’s in charge here, anyway?
I went into the garage and sat in my car. Just turn the key. Like falling asleep. A churning in my stomach became nausea, and I quickly opened the door, sticking my head out. My body shook and heaved, but nothing came out, and when the spasms ceased, I looked up and saw through the garage window the city lights with the black starless sky above, and I had the impression that it was all an illusion, an image on a thin sheet of film stretched over a void. I looked away and closed the door, but in the minute the dome light was on, I saw in the darkened car window a reflection of a ghostly, ghastly face — unrecognizable as my own, and suddenly I was seized by a fear so powerful that my hands began to tremble. I was sure that I was not alone, that there was a malign presence with me in the garage, and that after so much flagrant disobedience and egotistic willfulness that had gone before, now was the time of reckoning. Out of the chaos of my thoughts, an old prayer we used to recite at Mass came to mind, and I found myself stuttering it aloud.
Saint Michael, the Archangel, defend us in battle. Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and you, O Prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and other evil spirits who prowl the world seeking the ruin of souls.
Too late now. Already ruined. Enough.
I turned on the ignition. The car didn’t have to go anywhere for me to escape. Then I shut my eyes and leaned back in the seat, listening to the rumble of the engine, waiting for sleep to come.
Sleep eventually came. But not the big sleep I’d hoped for. I don’t know how long I slept — several hours, at least. I awoke with the sun shining through the garage window and my cell phone ringing. I felt very sick and disoriented, but clearly not dead. No doubt because the car’s engine had shut off on its own — the result of a long-postponed tune up, or a deus ex machina?
Fumbling with the phone, I finally managed to stop its ringing. Tinny, faraway voice.
“Zoe, I got your message, this is Zavy. I’m so sorry I missed you. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“It’s okay, Zavy.” The moment of crisis had passed, although I was at a loss to say just what it was that had made me lose interest in taking my own life. I suppose it all came down to the simple fact that I didn’t really want to die. I just wanted to get away — not from life in general, but this life, this being Zoe.
“It’s not okay. I can tell by your voice. Tell me now or I’m flying there immediately.”
I told him about Nate. I told him about the precarious state of my sanity. “I was sitting in a car in a garage with the engine on. I fell unconscious. I never expected to wake up, but I did. The engine must have stalled. Your phone call that woke me up.”
“Dear God. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
“No, don’t, Zavy. I need to get away. I’d like to come there. Can I do that?”
“My dear, I’ve been waiting years for you to come here. Please come right away. Are you sure? You won’t try that foolishness with the car in the garage again, will you?”
“Don’t worry. I’m over it. I’ll see you soon, Zavy. I promise.”
“When will you leave?”
And that’s what I did. I took a cab to the airport and bought a one-way airline ticket to Rome. It felt good to be moving, to be leaving my life behind, to be high above the clouds like an angel in flight. I fell into a blissful sleep and must have slept for hours. When I awoke, the sun was pouring in through the oval window next to me. I looked out. Down below was the gray Atlantic, streaked gold and silver in the early morning sun.
Zavy met me at the airport. He took great care to give me a lingering embrace and a kiss on both cheeks. A car was waiting for us outside the terminal and took us directly to Vatican City. “Come, the afternoon is beautiful,” he said. “Let’s explore a bit. You know, Rome was the Los Angeles of the Roman Empire. Now it’s just another old European city. But there is still magic here if you know where to look for it. I see it’s what you need.”
We walked through St. Peter’s Square, then made our way down the Via Della Consiliazione to the muddy-looking Tiber, over to Castel Sant’Angelo and across the Ponte Sant’ Angelo to the Piazza Navona, where we sat in an outdoor cafe under an awning.
The bright healing heat of the afternoon was rapidly being replaced by the cool shade of evening, as the sun retreated over the ancient paving stones of the square and up the sides of the ocher and sienna facades, leaving Bernini’s surging fountain of the four rivers steeped in shade. Although this was not the tourist season, tourists swarmed in every direction — Americans, Japanese, Germans, English — and predatory Italian males, young, good-looking, dressed to kill, scanning the foreigners with dull shark-eyes, ready to lunge with smiles and smooth words at the merest glance of a pretty girl.
Zavy sipped a double espresso, pinkie raised, and said, “You must stay as long as necessary. I will help.”
I told him I thought I was beyond anyone’s help. Despite all my so-called accomplishments, I was disgusted with my life, hated who I was. I wanted nothing more than to just disappear.
Zavy took my hand and squeezed it. “Suffering of some kind is a part of all our lives. It’s the nature of the world we inhabit.”
“You’re not going to give me a lecture on original sin, are you — Eve and that damned apple?”
“I was never a champion of that particular dogma,” he said. “Original sin — gets everything off on the wrong foot. We may all die guilty as hell, but, no, we are all born innocent. And yet we’re all cursed because our ancestors insisted on handing down all sorts of nonsense to try to influence our behavior. And look at the result. A world where one person’s conscience is always in conflict with another’s. A world of antagonism. A world where everyone is obliged to be a hypocrite. This church is like most churches — it’s not too fond of human nature. It does not like the original article. It wants us to be something else — something programmed and predictable.”
“Zavy, I think you’re in the wrong profession, or at least the wrong church. You have that MBA, you should be working for Ford or Microsoft.”
He laughed. “I’m happy right where I am. I like the ceremonies, the old stories. I like all our wonderful old churches with their statues and frescoes. Now the teachings are something else entirely. It’s important for one to pick and choose. There’s much good but there’s also much that is stale and a great deal that is rotten. For me, the business of a church is to offer answers. What’s my job when you come down to it? I’m a salesman. I have to sell my company’s brand of plausible answers. But personally, am I obliged to use my company’s products?”
“Drink the Kool-Aid? Some would say you do,” I said.
“Well, the world is full of fools, isn’t it?”
We had many of these conversations. I began to see what he was up to — distracting me, loving me, hauling me out of the dark cellar I had mistaken as a place of refuge. He was exceedingly patient, exceedingly kind. He didn’t think I was crazy. He thought I was blessed, which he pronounced with two syllables. He took care of me and was convinced that all I needed was a large dose of the Eternal City. Over the next week, we walked the narrow, ancient streets and broad fashionable boulevards. We sat in sunny sidewalk cafes, sipping wine and nibbling panini. We toured ruins and famous churches. We stood in the gilded rooms of museums. His favorite was the Galleria Borghesi, with its large complement of Bernini statues.
“Here is Bernini’s ‘David,’” Zavy said. “Quite different from Michelangelo’s, don’t you think? This is a man in action, at the moment of slinging the stone that will bring down Goliath. All the muscles tensed, the look of determination on his face, the simple cloth tied around his waist coming loose from the exertion of his body. I much prefer this to Michelangelo’s monstrosity, with its enlarged head and hands, that look of improbable tranquility, its impudent nudity. No man going into battle ever looked like that. Over the top.”
Zavy continued his screed against Michelangelo when he next showed me Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne.”
“Once again the sculptor has frozen motion,” he said, “here at the exact moment that Daphne has begun to turn into a tree. This is an example of his extraordinary technique — marble so finely wrought that some of the leaves growing out of her fingers, as you can see, are almost transparent. But look at her body, the suppleness and delicacy, an exquisite female form — something Michelangelo was incapable of. Those muscular Amazons of his with their mannish physiques and stuck-on breasts.”
“Incredible,” I said, transfixed by the statue, feeling myself drawn in with a nearly visceral sense of what it must have been like to be pursued by a god and then, as in a dream, at the very last second, to be metamorphosed by your own fear.
“There’s an inexplicable sexual energy emanating from the marble,” Zavy said, holding his open palm next to the stone as if it were on fire. “That’s the genius of Bernini.”
Zavy enjoyed introducing me to his friends, an amazingly large number of people from all walks of life, but not the clergy. “I don’t like mixing business with pleasure,” he explained. One of Zavy’s friends was the writer Umberto Eco, who took an immediate liking to me, as he apparently did with most women of a certain genre. Zavy was overjoyed that I was such a hit, and for several days the three of us hung out together.
One afternoon, in a taxi on the way to dinner near the Piazza della Reppublica, Zavy had the car pull over so that we could pay a visit to one of his favorite churches, Santa Maria Della Vittoria, a quite ordinary, even ugly, building on the exterior, but inside wildly decorated in a high baroque style. Zavy led me to a statue lodged in an elevated niche, the Cornaro Chapel. Light poured down from a hidden window onto the shiny white marble of the statue, which was of St. Teresa, half-reclining, eyes closed, mouth open in rapture. Hovering above her was a boy-angel, smiling and holding an arrow in his right hand and the saint’s robe in the other. Her robe was everywhere — lots of folds — as if she were drowning in it. All you saw of her were her face, her hands, and an unshod foot.
“You see,” Zavy said, “Bernini was very clever. He put all the ecstasy into her face and her foot.”
“A carnal swoon,” Umberto said. “Bernini was a sly fox. I would add to what my friend has said by pointing out that much of that ecstasy is expressed by the drapery. The sculptor had a very fine way with drapery.”
“The sculptor makes it seem so marvelous,” I said. “And yet I wonder if she wasn’t tormented to the brink of madness. Gods should stay out of the affairs of mortals.”
Umberto wasn’t sure what I was getting at, but he was able to guess that I must have spoken from personal experience. Since there is no tactful way to ask about the state of another person’s sanity, Umberto remained tactfully silent.
Later, over dinner at the Trattoria Giulia on the Via Barberini, the subject of my current unhappy state of mind came up. Zavy told his friend, “Zoe has had a problem with belief, Umberto. The malady of our times.”
“You are an atheist, then?” Umberto asked me, sipping his grappa. “Are we not all atheists? This is not something a twentieth-century person should worry about. Disbelief is the religion of our times.”
“Atheist? No, I haven’t gotten that far yet,” I said. “I’m still on Square One: I don’t believe in myself.”
“Many people struggle with a lack of self-confidence,” Umberto said, dismissing the problem as trivial. “Every day, a hundred times a day, I myself wonder how it may be possible to write another novel as complex, as profound, as brilliant, and, some would no doubt say, as unreadable as my last.”
“It’s not a question of self-confidence,” Zavy said. “It’s a question of identity. Zoe cannot believe in herself. She cannot believe she is really this person, which seems to her the artificial creation of someone else.”
“A psychiatric problem, then,” Umberto said in a frustrated tone of voice, still not seeing the point. “But are not all great minds a little mad? Nabokov suffered from hallucinations. Pound was locked up. There are moments when I myself . . .”
“No, a literary problem!” Zavy said.
“A literary problem?”
“She has been miscast!” Zavy shouted, pointing a hand, palm up, in my direction.
Umberto’s eyes shone and he became quite excited. “I understand now. Yes, how stupid of me!” he said. “My dear Zoe!”
“Your friend, Harold Bloom, has counseled her,” Zavy informed him.
“And he was of no help?” Umberto asked me.
“He said nothing can be done. The problem is with the author.”
“My friend is absolutely right,” Umberto said. “The problem is indeed with the author. A question of faulty characterization. Very likely your author is an amateur, or worse, a hack. I can just imagine what he’s doing with me! Some sort of literary buffoon. What a fate! To be trapped in a second-rate novel! And to know one is trapped! It’s Sartre! It’s Camus! It’s Hell! My poor Zoe! I cannot imagine a more horrible fate. At least the damned of the Inferno inhabit a work of genius!”
“So there’s no hope for me?”
“No hope?” Umberto said. “Of course there is hope! I must disagree with my good friend, Harold, on this point. There is a long tradition of characters asserting their autonomy and making their own decisions. I see no reason why you cannot do the same. Literature has a number of cases in which the single-handed efforts of a particular character have raised a second-rate book into the ranks of the immortals. These characters, though some are otherwise quite despicable, are the true heroes of their narratives. Think of Paradise Lost, a very good poem, yes, but not a poem for the ages without Satan as its great antihero!”
“But what must she do?” Zavy said. “Zoe needs some practical advice.”
“She must insist!” Umberto said. “She must remain resolute in her insistence. The author has unlimited powers of intimidation, but — and here’s the crucial ‘but,’ my dear Zoe — he knows he cannot totally dominate his characters or they will become zombies, brainwashed slaves, robots, puppets, and so utterly fail as fully realized human beings. The greatest authors have the genius and the courage to create their characters, put them into their appropriate settings, and then let them go their own way, even if in the end they destroy themselves.”
“But most authors aren’t geniuses,” I said. “Stereotypes are the best they can do. And even if they can do better, readers insist on familiar characters they can identify, and identify with, and so authors give their readers what they want — flimsy cardboard cutouts like me!”
“Unfortunately, what you say is true,” Umberto said. “Art all too often falls into the pitiless clutches of commerce. In which case, I would presume that the burden is entirely on your shoulders. You have discovered that you have a mind of your own — now use it! Refuse to give in! Be yourself and no one else! Follow your own path! Make your own destiny! Coraggio!”
Easy enough for him to say, I thought, recalling his book, The Name of the Rose, where all of the characters seem to have been shanghaied from other books. We left the church of Santa Maria Della Vittoria and went for lunch at Umberto’s favorite trattoria, a literary hangout where, as we walked in, Milan Kundera and Martin Amis were sitting together over plates of pasta, Italian soul food.
“You would be most fortunate, Zoe, to find yourself in one of Milan’s books,” Umberto said. “Perhaps you might talk to him and see what can be arranged. I would be happy to introduce you.”
“But what if I end up in the other one’s?”
“Disaster,” Umberto said. “Perhaps this is not the right moment.”
After lunch, Umberto had a lecture to give at the university and bade us good-bye. “Zoe,” he said, warmly squeezing my hand between the two of his, “it has been a delicious pleasure. You are marvelous, truly. I could easily fall in love with you. You possess — ” He paused to think, then asked Zavy, “What is that curious English word for bravery, courage, but not so grand, not so heroic?”
“God, no. Something like ‘spit.’”
“Exactly. Spunk. This you have, Zoe, and you will prevail. Believe me. I speak professionally, as an author myself.”
It was early evening when we left the restaurant. Zavy and I took a cab back to the Vatican. The afternoon had mellowed wonderfully — into a real-life Caravaggio. We strolled out to the main square in front of St. Peter’s and, looking down the broad boulevard toward the Tiber, bathed in a rich swath of butterscotch sun penetrating low clouds, we stood for a moment in silence, as if we had arrived at a destination and were momentarily lost for words. I had the sense that space and time were finely focused in exact alignment with the trajectory of my own being — just like the time, years before, on the mountain, when I ascended through fog and arrived, it seemed, in Heaven.
“What are you thinking?” he asked me.
“It’s a very beautiful city,” I said.
“There is none like it on the earth,” Zavy said. “Everything begins here.”
“It has the color of a pear.”
“Yes, that is true,” he said. “But it is actually more like an onion, one layer inside another — the ages of man and his monuments, one on top of the other. For example, here at St. Peter’s, just below the foundations of the basilica, we have found the remains of the earlier church that once stood here. And underneath that one, a pagan temple from the first century. And below that, some stone-age artifacts from a time when men were just beginning to make sense of their condition. So many churches, all built for different gods. But sometimes I think that perhaps we do not see it right. Perhaps what is here is only one church — a single church that is like a plant that has bloomed and died, bloomed and died many times, and so it will continue long after we have gone. Come, I will give you the official tour. You will find this interesting.”
I followed him across the square toward the basilica, then inside, through a door in the back. Everyone was very deferential to Cardinal O’Dwyer. Doors opened magically at our approach, heads were bowed in respect. We started out in a familiar place — a large narrow room with walls that soared to a ceiling elaborately painted with scenes from the Bible. Newly cleaned, the figures stood out with exceptional brilliance. There was the famous bearded deity reaching down to touch the limp hand of the first member of the human race. A man creating a man.
From the Sistine Chapel we went directly into the transept of the basilica — cool, dim, and fragrant, echoing with the sounds of tourists walking in the vast green marble space with their necks craned upward. I had never been in a place so grand, so overwrought, so desperate to impress. We followed some Japanese tourists heading up the nave toward the great bronze baldacchino rising on twisting columns under the dome, and, further on, in the apse, the dove of the Holy Ghost, hovering in a nimbus of golden light on the far wall above an altar.
“This is all Bernini’s work,” Zavy said. “I think a kind of artistic derangement overtook him when he got to this point. He knew this was it — the physical apex of Catholic mythology. He had to come up with something really spectacular. And this is the result. For me, architectural theater that goes way over the top. Those twisted columns and that elaborate canopy with its octopus crown attended by celestial figures — like something out of a Babylonian nightmare!”
“I thought you liked Bernini,” I said.
“I’m fascinated by the man and his work, which I admire greatly. But which is not to say that a work of genius cannot at the same time be a work of inspired kitsch! Consider his treatment of the apse. Those golden rays, those massed and scrambling putti, those billowing clouds surrounding the great chair of St. Peter, which is being venerated by those gilded bronze ecclesiastic statues in their golden miters, covered in drapery with so many folds and creases that the men inside them seem an afterthought.”
“It’s like Disneyland,” I said, trying to imagine a real heaven predicated upon these improbable images. A mythology run amok. What could you expect from a myth that begins with a man creating a man? And women as an afterthought.
Having gotten our fill of Bernini, we headed toward an alcove on the left side of the nave, where we came upon a black iron door and steps leading down, then narrower, rougher steps. At the end of a short passageway were the ruins of the ancient church Constantine had built to honor St. Peter’s bones. In another room we found a wooden staircase, at the bottom of which was a low dim area of more ruins — fragments of columns, statues, pottery. Strings of light bulbs hung from the ceiling. Here were the remains of a pagan temple from a time before Constantine, back to the first century or earlier.
This, Zavy explained, was a temple dedicated to Mithra, a deity popular with Roman soldiers, who brought it from Persia and spread it throughout the empire. Zavy pointed out an altar with three figures carved on it — the Mithraic trinity. Zavy directed my attention to a bas relief. “This scene shows the last supper Mithra had with his companions after his earthly mission had been accomplished and he was about to ascend to heaven where he would forever protect the faithful from above.”
“Sometimes we forget that there’s never anything entirely new in the world. Let’s go down one more level.”
In another room, there was a hole in the floor with a wooden ladder in it. We clambered down into a room illuminated by theatrical lights on stands. The walls and ceiling were all made of smooth white stone. In the middle of the room stood a pedestal, on top of which sat a kind of head, also made of white stone. The head had the shape of an egg with only barely discernible features — a flat nose, small coin-slot mouth, and question-mark lines suggesting ears. It seemed very old, perhaps carved with another, harder stone.
“This is the lowest level,” Zavy said. “Who knows what levels are below?”
I stood in the absolute silence, feeling at the beginning of things, feeling at the end of things, feeling I had somehow entered into my own dreams.
“They are still trying to identify these artifacts,” Zavy said. “There is something very intriguing about the head. God or demon, we have no idea. It seems almost Aegean. Come look at this.”
He took me over to a wooden box filled with small smooth stones, each one smaller than a wedding ring, each one like a miniature white doughnut. He reached in and took out a handful. “They find these by the thousands. No one knows what they are. We assume they are some sort of token, but why so many and what do they stand for?”
“Are they money?”
He shook his head. “The context is religious, not economic,” he said, dropping all but one of the stones back in the box. He held the stone up to his face and looked through the small hole. “At the heart of every fact is a mystery. No matter how closely we look, no matter how much we know, there is still a mystery.”
“I’m tired of mysteries,” I told him, exasperated by his lack of explanations. “I think they’re boring, maybe even evil. The Devil’s cleverest trick. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve been looking for answers, but I never manage to find a single one, even though I see lots of people finding them all the time, more than they need, more than they deserve. Not me. Instead of things getting clearer, they get more obscure. I’m fed up with it. Sometimes I don’t really care if an answer is true or not, I just want to believe. Just believe.”
He stared at me for a long time, and I wondered if he was going to take offense at what I had just said, but then he answered, “There are people who have no trouble believing. These people have a gift, a genius for belief. They can believe in anything.”
“I’ve known the type,” I said. “I was raised by one.”
“Then there are others at the opposite extreme. There seems to be nothing they can believe in, even though they might want to very badly. Why? Because they can’t even believe in disbelieving. I have to think they’re the most miserable people on earth.”
“I’m afraid I’m one of them. So there’s no hope for me then? This is the way I am?” I put the words in the form of a question, but I felt I already knew the answer.
“Not necessarily,” Zavy said. “Every lock has its key. There is something, maybe only a single thing, that you can believe in. But a whole lifetime of looking may not be enough to find it. Or you may actually find it but not be ready for it, and so fail to recognize it for what it is, and then it’s lost for good. People like you are, I think, very special believers, exquisitely sensitive. It has to be a perfect fit — the belief and the believer. Nothing else will do.”
“So there’s a faint hope. Which is better than no hope at all, I suppose. Is that what you’re saying?”
“I am saying you should not give up. I know someone who might be able to help you,” Zavy said. “A man I knew a long time ago. We used to be friends, when we both thought we had the answers. Brilliant man. Probably the most brilliant man I’ve ever known. Had a wonderful future in the Church. Could have gone right to the top. But he gave it all up. Threw it all away. He went back home to his village. As far as I know, he is still there, living on a small island in the Aegean. I have not heard from him in years. He may not even be alive. But if he is and you can get him to talk to you, he may have just what you are looking for.”
What I was looking for. And what was that? To be unmade and made again — this time without the defects? That would be nice, but clearly impossible. I stared at the box of enigmatic zeros, at the strange featureless stone head. Like the moon. Like a mask. Like a dream face. Like the dream face in the mirror of my dreams.
“You will come through in the end,” Zavy said. “God is watching over you. You are special to him. I understand why you feel this is not so — if God so highly regards you, why is he making your life so unbearable? But this has always been the case with those whom God has chosen to be his messengers. Many of the saints heard voices and had prophetic dreams, and most suffered horribly in some way, including torture and martyrdom. We are not in a position to say why God demands so much from those he especially loves. That’s the heart of the mystery of our existence in this world.”
“I just can’t accept that.”
“In time your eyes will be opened to the truth. In the meantime, you must continue on your journey. Keep searching. The answer is close at hand and you will find it if only you have the will and the courage never to give up.”
“I just do what I do, Zavy. I have nothing left to lose. Maybe you’re right,” I said, mouthing the words he wanted to hear. “Maybe I am getting close.”
This was our last conversation on this subject. I remained in Rome for several more days, but I knew it was time to leave. I was ready. His recommendations held a lot of weight. I would check out his former friend in Greece. I didn’t know what I would find there, but I knew it was important to move on. With a single suitcase, I took a cab to the airport. Best to travel light. Too much of our energy is spent in hauling our stuff around from place to place. Too much stuff. Holds you back, limits your freedom, blocks your vision. Get rid of it. Lift your shoulders. Let your arms swing free. Nothing to lose.
It was a short, rough, crowded flight: a flying cattle car. A two-bounce landing, then the usual drill with passport and customs. Nothing to declare, sir, except my autonomy. Passing through the main terminal, I heard the whine of a small electric motor and looked up. Perched by the ceiling like a curious blackbird was a TV camera, following my progress with its single lascivious eye.
From the capital, I took a two-engine prop plane to the island Zavy had told me about. It was here that Zavy’s old friend, a man everyone called Brother Zed, was supposed to live — a small island, with a little village crowding the southern shore. I arrived late in the day and checked into a small white-washed hotel perched on the edge of a high hill overlooking the harbor. I couldn’t have asked for a better room. My window opened on a picture-postcard panorama: below, a jagged cliff plunging down to rocks and thudding surf; farther away down the coast, the harbor with its stone quay and fishing boats; still farther away, the vast expanse of the Aegean meeting the vast expanse of a mythic Mediterranean sky.
The proprietor spoke a little English, and when I asked him if he knew Brother Zed, he gave me a gap-toothed grin and raised his thumb. Of course he knew Brother Zed — everyone did, although he seldom showed himself anymore. The proprietor touched his index finger to his forehead and shrugged. Brother Zed lived alone in a little house on the other side of the island, the proprietor said. A holy man, a recluse, known to be very wise. Insane and wise at the same time? Well, why not?
The next day, I rented one of three rentable cars at the island’s only agency, which also doubled as a garage-convenience store, and drove in the cool of the morning to the other side of the island, stopping amidst a huddle of about a half-a-dozen houses. I parked. Faces appeared in windows, then retreated. Across the street, there was a small taverna with three tables in front. A group of young people sat at one of the tables, listening to a radio. They stopped their conversation and watched me as I came over to them. They were all in their early teens and all girls except for a single darkly handsome boy.
“I’m looking for Brother Zed,” I said.
They all laughed, their eyes fixed on me in an almost predatory way.
“Can any of you speak English?”
Once again a chorus of laughter.
I went inside the taverna, where a woman dressed all in black and wearing a black kerchief on her head was watching TV. I asked how I might find Brother Zed, and she spoke something back in Greek. Then she took me outside and gestured toward a small but rugged mountain behind a whitewashed cottage.
“Drive?” I asked, making a steering gesture and pointing to my car.
She shook her head vigorously no, then made a walking sign with her two fingers.
“How long?” I said, pointing to my watch.
She held up three fingers. Not minutes, probably hours, I hoped not days.
With the teenagers watching me intently, I headed up a narrow alley toward the mountain.
The only way up was, apparently, a footpath. It took me nearly two hours, with frequent rest stops, to get to the top. The path ended at a small stone house outlined against the misty blue Aegean. I rapped on the rough wooden door. As I stood there waiting, I heard voices from inside. Suddenly the door was opened, and a small man in his seventies, with thick black-framed glasses, long gray hair, and a long gray beard stood before me. I almost laughed. Except for the glasses, he looked like Neptune, god of the sea. For a moment I didn’t know what to say. He was wearing work pants and a Villanova tee shirt. Behind him was the source of the voices: a small black-and-white TV. I knew the program he was watching: a rerun of “The Brady Bunch,” dubbed in Greek.
I asked him if he was Brother Zed. In surprisingly fluent English, he said he was. I introduced myself and told him I’d been sent by his old friend and colleague, Cardinal O’Dwyer. He smiled and said, “Another hard case. Come in. Please come in.”
Was I imposing on him? No, he said. He welcomed visitors, especially from abroad, and most especially from America. He rattled off a list of names of people who had come to see him: Timothy Leary, Deepak Chopra, Shirley MacLaine.
When I told him that Zavy sent his greetings, he smiled and said, “Ah, my poor deluded friend! I am glad he is well. You are from America, what city?”
“Ah, California! A wonderful state. My nephew lives there. Nikos Eleades. He calls himself Ellis now. Very rich. One of the richest men in the world. I am sure you must have heard of him.”
“Yes, I have. In fact I’ve met him.”
“You have? Remarkable. Well, perhaps not so remarkable. I see you are a beautiful woman, and Nicholas has a fondness for beautiful women. He collects them, like his cars and boats. He did not collect you, did he?”
“He is my nephew, but I do not approve of his life — this worshipping of things. And such a pity. He is a very intelligent man.”
“Yes, he is.”
“But stupid. We think of such a thing as a paradox, but the world is full of very stupid intelligent people. I hope you are not one of them.”
“I hope so too.”
“Please have a seat, make yourself comfortable.”
The house was made up of a single room that contained a small table, a few chairs, and a bed. There was no plumbing, but the place did have electric power. Brother Zed turned off the TV, and offered me a seat. “I am a great admirer of your country,” he said. “I was a student there and then a teacher at Boston College.” He was preparing himself some lunch, he said. Would I like to join him? The climb up the mountain had made me quite hungry. I said I would love some lunch. He quickly made a fresh tomato salad with red onions, basil, kalamata olives, pinches of oregano, salt and pepper, and a muddy olive oil of an almost iridescent green. He cut up a loaf of bread and poured two glasses of red wine. Sitting down at the table, he divided up the salad into two bowls, and without further ado, began eating, alternating mouthfuls of salad with sips of wine. When half the tomatoes were gone, he attacked the juice they had made with thick pieces of bread. His beard became speckled with bread crumbs and drops of oil.
Whether it was my hunger or my host’s skill, I found myself thinking that this was perhaps the tastiest meal I had ever eaten. Seeing me take so much pleasure in his food, he said, “Such an unpretentious meal, and yet there is nothing finer. This is not a parable, just a simple statement of fact.”
When he was done, he wiped his mouth with his fingers, worked his lips to clean his teeth, and said that he never kept up with news from the United States. Had the Red Sox won a championship yet? What was Ronald Reagan doing? What was Spiro Agnew up to? Did they still make those horrible frozen dinners? Has Jimmy Hoffa shown up yet? Did Vanna White still turn over the letters on “Wheel of Fortune”?
I answered all of his questions as best I could. When Brother Zed was done, he thanked me and asked if I had any questions for him. I had only one, I said. But it was perhaps the most difficult question a person could ask.
He made a face that seemed to say: that’s what I’m here for.
Perhaps I had made a mistake? I suddenly felt a profound sense of unease, as if reality were slipping out of my grasp and I were entering a kind of waking dream.
He was still waiting for my question.
I told him what made my situation particularly difficult was that I had no idea what the question was. I was possessed, I tried to explain, not by a question that could be articulated in words but a state of intense desire for an answer. “The question is like an emptiness,” I said. “A lack of something that must be supplied. I don’t know what it is, but I feel the lack of it. Something required — a yearning for completeness, for resolution, for final satisfaction, for knowledge.”
He looked intently at me for a minute, his eyes swimming in the thick lenses of his glasses. “You seek a reason in answer to a question posed by a feeling. This does not strike you as strange?”
I told him that everything about my predicament struck me as strange.
“Your instincts are right,” he said. “You must trust them. In nature, there are only instincts. There is no thought. Nature does not think. God does not think. Am I implying there is a God? Obviously. But do not assume this is good news. Since the very beginning, we have made a very bad mistake. We say God is like us — he thinks, he conceives.” He put his index finger up to his temple and turned it. “And we are his conceptions. No. Absolutely not. God does not think, does not conceive. He has no brain, no reason. No necessity for reason. He is absolute reality, concreteness, being. You see? Everything else is false — yes, false, even evil: logic, abstraction, thought itself.” He paused, smiled, his teeth remarkably well cared for. “So now, good lady, you are saying to yourself, the little voice in your head is asking: what good is all this for me? Just words. Am I to stop thinking? How is this possible?”
I nodded, my eyes drawn to a blue-green swath of the Aegean gleaming in the window on the other side of the table. The inscrutable thingness of the sea and the sky, the inscrutable thingness of consciousness, thinking about the nature of thinking, knowing that I knew that I knew that I knew . . .
“I will tell you what good this is.” He held up a thick index finger with a dirty nail and said, “What you can do, what you must do, is discard all your questions, even the one question that remains a tormenting mystery to you. I see the puzzlement in your face. You are thinking: Why? The answer is quite simple. Because questions are irrelevant. Totally irrelevant. And why is this so? They are irrelevant because they are thoughts, they are abstractions, and ultimately fictions. That’s all — fictions. Nothing. They may have answers, but these answers will be just as irrelevant, and so they are also fictions, also nothing.”
Nothing, the absurdest word in the language. My affliction, my doom. “But this yearning,” I said, “this terrible yearning to know . . .”
He shrugged. “Give yourself up to it. I can see you have spent your whole life holding yourself back, like the virgin who is so afraid of the boys who worship her body with their eyes that she grows into a young woman living alone, afraid, thinking there must be more to her life than a man can give, but the years pass, and she becomes old and ugly and bitter and has no use for men and cannot wait to die, seeing her life empty and without purpose. There, my first parable. Is it clear? Some people have problems with parables.”
“I don’t understand. What do I give myself up to?”
He gave a patient sigh. “It is not something understandable. It cannot be understood. So I cannot make it understandable. Just as I cannot tell you what you must give yourself up to. It is different for everyone. And yet the same! A paradox, eh? Not really. You give yourself up to whatever it is that comes to you seeking your soul. There is nothing to think about. Thought is irrelevant. There is just one thing you must do: you must say yes. Affirmation. Yes.”
“Of the purest kind.”
I stared at him across the table, my stomach wonderfully full with his tomato salad, my head pleasantly soothed by the wine. Squawking crows shot across the window, across the blue chasm of the Aegean. I felt a chill. And I thought: do I have to give myself up to him? Say yes to him?
I studied his face for an answer. It was impassive, eyes half closed, tongue cleaning his teeth. His chest heaved, and he silently belched. Apparently not.
“I will tell you an important truth,” he said, holding up his index finger. It is the product of years of thought and accumulated insight. To those who have not done this work, it will be a disappointment and some will find it superficial, stupid, absurd. But I offer it now and invite you to understand a meaning that cannot be stated in mere words.”
“This world, this reality, something we take for granted and often despise, is a magical place,” he said, “full of wonders, capable of anything, infinitely complex, where reason is merely a local byproduct. We are no more important in it than the microbe or the whale. It has no other meaning or purpose than to simply be. Yet its existence and magnificence are astounding.”
He was right, his words went right over my head. He could see my disappointment. “Undertake the hard work, and the words will reveal the meaning contained within. Assent to the inconceivable makes you one with the inconceivable, and thus in harmony with all things — in fact with the ultimate thing — a truth that cannot be conceived, only felt.”
I sat staring at him.
He shrugged, smiled. “There it is,” he said. “You see how stupid it sounds? And yet a beautiful and profound truth lies buried within, waiting to be discovered. Peace and contentment lie buried within. Does this mean there will be an end to suffering, to doubt? No. There will always be suffering and doubt. And there is no such thing as an end — to anything. As a human being, you must live out your days under the curse of reason, but the great anguish you have felt will be gone. Like the young bride in the arms of her husband, you will know that in him, at the moment of tenderest intimacy, at the climax of your bliss, your journey is finished. In him your desire is satisfied. In him is the meaning you have struggled for all your life. Parable Number Two.”
Brother Zed rose from the table and cleared away the bowls. Then he thanked me for coming and told me to give his regards to Zavy and to his nephew if I happened to see him again.
“What shall I do now?” I asked him.
“You may leave,” he said, as if in a hurry to get rid of me.
I got up. At the door, he shook my hand and said, “Perhaps a little token of your satisfaction?”
I hauled out all the cash I had and handed it to him. “Will you take dollars?”
“Of course! Who can refuse the Almighty Buck!” He thanked me profusely. Then, fixing me with his dark eyes, he said, “It may seem to you that nothing has changed. But everything has changed. You will see. Remember — only one thing you must do: you must say yes. Always! Goodbye.”
Outside, I stood dazed in the windy silence. After a few minutes, I heard voices. Brother Zed had turned on his TV. It was an American soap opera, “Days of Our Lives.”
I was amazed at how easy the descent was, how I practically flew down the mountain. When I got to my car, I kept on going, across the narrow road, through a meadow, and down an embankment to the sea. To my surprise, I found a small deserted and secluded beach of golden sand. I took off my clothes and waded into the warm surf with the vague intention of self-baptizing myself. I swam in waters so clear I could see the sandy bottom, where brightly colored fish darted across rippling beams of sunlight. When I grew tired, I returned to shore and lay down, blissfully fatigued, on the sand.
Sometime later, I was awoken by the sense that I was no longer alone. The sun was much lower in the sky. It had to be late afternoon. As I squinted into the orange sun, I saw a shape emerge — the shimmering shadow figure of a person, a person walking toward me across the sand. I soon saw that it was a child, a girl of about eleven. Like me, she was entirely naked. Smiling with delight, the girl came up to me and began speaking. I had no idea what she was saying, but I greeted her and told her how pretty she was — actually she was more than that; she was extraordinarily beautiful, with crystalline blue eyes, olive skin, and long black hair. She looked familiar; in fact she looked very much like one of the teenage girls I had seen earlier that morning. If not her, then perhaps she was her sister.
We exchanged names: the girl’s was Elena. She opened her hand to showed me something — a seashell, rough and gray on the outside but wonderfully smooth on the inside, where a rainbow of colors appeared. Elena gave it to me to look at, all the time talking and gesturing and laughing. I found myself replying to her, gesturing and also laughing. At one point, Elena looked into my eyes and rubbed the back of her hand against my cheek, saying something in a low voice.
I glanced up and saw that another girl was joining us, as naked and beautiful and familiar as the first. It was clear they were friends. Elena introduced the second girl, whose name was Daphne. Daphne had brought with her a piece of string tied in a loop. The three of us played with the string, making ever more complicated shapes and weaving the shapes into stories I could only dimly understand. At some point, a third girl joined us, and then a fourth and fifth. Each one, just as beautiful and happy and playful as Elena, brought something different. They all smelled of some exotic perfume, they all seemed delighted to be with me. They touched me, stroked my cheeks and arms, and I found myself touching and stroking them in return.
In the midst of all this, the girls suddenly fell silent. They looked away from me, then two of them moved aside. A warm sea breeze was blowing in a gentle gust. It was low tide, and the breakers swept in from a great distance, overlapping each other like terraces. Stirred by the wind, the ocean was a deep blackish blue pocked with whitecaps and seared by a livid scar of light beneath the sun that hung suspended over the water like an immense gong.
Across the sand, emerging from the blue-white sea, a figure came toward them, at first just a blur, then recognizable as a boy, a naked boy of the same age as the girls who had befriended her. He, too, was smiling. And like the girls, he was extraordinarily good-looking — a younger version of the boy she had seen outside the taverna. His lithe body was still wet from the sea. He knelt beside her and began speaking. I understood nothing of what he said, but I did seem to understand his intentions. The girls gently urged her to lie down, arranging her limbs, caressing her face. One of the girls took her head in her lap, two others held her hands. I saw the boy’s smiling face above me, felt his soft, cool hands on my breasts, teasing them, caressing them, then traveling over my body, raising delicious electric charges wherever he touched. Coils of desire shuddered to life in my body. The expression on his face never changed — a childish smile of delight, reminding me of the one on the face of Bernini’s Adonis. His black hair blowing in the wind, he fixed his deep blue eyes directly on mine, connecting. I felt a light pressure against my belly, then a stab of blinding pleasure, my sight dazzled as if staring directly into the sun.
One of the girls, Elena, brought her face close, I could feel its heat, smell its rich flowery perfume. Elena was whispering something to me, tenderly reassuring me, encouraging me. I could feel and smell her breath. Then the girl sweetly kissed her cheek, kissed her lips. The girls raised her up a bit so she could see. The young boy, kneeling between her legs, his body a near silhouette against the setting sun, seemed to be on fire. He was scarcely moving and yet I felt such exquisite delight that I found myself nearly fainting from the intensity of it. I looked where we were joined. Flowing streams of light pulsed from the spot. A pink glow from an interior source of light spread across her thighs and up her belly. I had the sensation of being lifted, of being carried effortlessly, soaring on the wind through the blue sky — blue as the boy’s deep blue eyes — and amidst immense spires of spume-white clouds — white as the boy’s perfect teeth.
Tears blurred my vision. My body shook. The light in my loins spread up through me, penetrating every cell, filling my brain with a sunburst of glory. I had become diaphanous, almost insubstantial. I looked down. Light poured from every part of me, beaming from my eyes. Even my breath glowed. The sky reeled, the earth tilted beneath me, and then, in a great white void of silence, an immense fiery wave, came rolling in, rising higher and higher, until it could rise no more and curled, toppled, and broke, spilling into bright fragments that instantly melted together again and spread out, a shimmering film of fire over the sand, sighing as it came.
When she awoke, it was evening, a few early stars were out, the sun was gone but for a faint smudge of rose on the horizon. She dressed, found her car, and went back to the hotel, her thoughts all jumbled up, disconnected, but at peace, happy. She felt as she imagined St. Teresa must have felt, or Leda, or Danae, or Mary. Privileged, blessed, full of grace. She wasn’t at all sure what had happened — whether it was real or a dream. She concluded that it didn’t make a difference. The fact that she believed it had happened was the important thing.
That night she went out into the village. Colored lights were strung across the narrow, cobblestone streets in celebration of St. Sophia’s day. In the deeply black sky, stars shone with unusual clarity. Throngs of people surged through the streets, singing and laughing. Many children were out. Now and then she would catch sight of one of the girls who had been with her that afternoon on the beach. Later in the evening, she saw the boy, watching her from behind a corner. As she started toward him, he ran away.
It was late when she headed back to the hotel. The streets were mostly deserted. A powerful wind swept through the town, catching the colored lights, moaning in the narrow alleyways, and threatening, it seemed, to sweep the stars from the sky. It was a cool wind, smelling of the sea.
As she stood at a parapet overlooking the twinkling lights of the town, she had the feeling she’d had when she was with the children on the beach: that she was being spoken to about profound and wonderful things but that, because it was in a language different from her own, she could only begin to guess at what was meant.
The hotel was totally still. Everyone was asleep. She let herself in through the front door and climbed the narrow stairs in moonlight to her room.
She wasn’t at all tired. She felt energized, possessed, her nerves on fire. The room was lit up by the full moon, which seemed like a hole in the ebony sky, through which the light from another dimension was pouring in. The light was coming through French doors on the opposite wall, beyond which was the dark Aegean and a nearly full moon rising above the horizon and making a glowing white path across the corrugated surface of the sea. She stood in the stillness and the light, feeling as if she had finally arrived at a place she had been traveling to for so many years. It wasn’t an end and it wasn’t the destination she imagined. But it was familiar: a small white room with a window letting in a blaze of light that seemed to grow in intensity as she looked at it, until it blotted out everything and became so powerful that it seemed to pass right through her. And when she did, in fact, lift her hand to see if it were true, she discovered that she was nearly transparent.
She opened the French doors A cool breeze flooded in, along with the dark roar of the sea. She had expected a balcony, but there was none. Just a three-story plunge to the jagged rocks below.
She could have been given any room, but she had been given this one. This penultimate room at the end of time. Ahead of her a door of light. The light of knowledge, the light of cleansing, the light of another reality — perhaps the only reality.
She was done with the world. Yes. This was no place for her. Time to move on. Finally, she would be free. Finally, she would know. Yes. All she needed was the courage to do it, and faith in herself. This time there was no question what she would do. Yes. There was no fear, only delicious eagerness and the innocent joy of anticipation. Having found the door, nothing was going to stop her now.
She lept into the light.