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Akplah Catherine Korkor
I read Rich dad, Poor dad and it was helpful but just that it was so much oriented in the American way of life. Life in Africa is somewhat different
29 March 2020 (23:23)
I love this book immensely. I don’t have the words to explain it right, yet I feel it fully.
26 August 2020 (06:11)
Finally it's a HAPPY ENDING. I was so sad when I read CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. I'm very thankful to Aciman Andre for writing a sequel.
30 September 2020 (10:53)
Best book I have ever read. Thank u so much Andre Aciman for writing such a beautiful book.
21 December 2020 (12:39)
i can't open the PDF, what is wrong with it?
05 June 2021 (14:14)
Begin Reading Table of Contents A Note About the Author Copyright Page The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way. Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at: us.macmillanusa.com/piracy. Para mis tres hijos TEMPO Why so glum? I watched her get on at the station in Florence. She slid open the glass door and, once inside the car, looked around, then right away dumped her backpack on the empty seat next to mine. She took off her leather jacket, put down the English-language paperback she was reading, then placed a square white box on the luggage rack and threw herself onto the seat diagonally across from mine in what seemed a restless, ill-tempered huff. She reminded me of someone who’d just had a heated argument seconds before boarding and was still stewing over the cutting words either she or someone else had spoken before hanging up. Her dog, which she was trying to keep tucked between her ankles while holding a red leash looped around her fist, seemed no less jittery than she was. “Buona, good girl,” she finally said, hoping to calm it down, “buona,” she repeated, as the dog still fidgeted and tried to squirm out of the firm grip. The presence of the dog annoyed me, and instinctively I refused to uncross my legs or budge to make room for it. But she didn’t seem to notice either me or my body language. Instead, she immediately rummaged through the backpack, found a slim plastic bag, and took out two tiny bone-shaped treats for the dog, then laid them in her palm and watched the dog lick them off. “Brava.” With the dog momentarily placated, she half lifted herself to fix her shirt, shifted in her seat once or twice, then slumped into a sort of upset stupor, staring out indifferently at Florence as the train began to pull out of the Santa Maria Novella station. She; was still stewing and, perhaps without noticing, shook her head, once, twice, obviously still cussing whomever she’d quarreled with before boarding. For a moment she looked so totally forlorn that, while staring at my open book, I caught myself struggling to come up with something to say, if only to help defuse what had all the bearings of a gathering storm about to erupt in our little corner at the very end of the car. Then I thought twice about it. Better to leave her alone and go on with my reading. But when I caught her looking at me, I couldn’t help myself: “Why so glum?” I asked. Only then did it occur to me how thoroughly inappropriate my question must have sounded to a complete stranger on a train, to say nothing of one who seemed ready to explode at the slightest provocation. All she did was stare at me with a baffled, hostile glint in her eyes that presaged the very words about to cut me down and put me in my place. Mind your own business, old man. Or: What’s it to you, anyway? Or she’d make a face and utter a withering rebuke: Jerk! “No, not glum, just thinking,” she said. I was so taken aback by the gentle, almost rueful tone of her reply that I was left more speechless than if she had told me to fuck off. “Maybe thinking makes me look glum.” “So yours are happy thoughts?” “No, not happy either,” she replied. I smiled but said nothing, already regretting my shallow, patronizing banter. “But maybe glum after all,” she added, conceding the point with a subdued laugh. I apologized for sounding tactless. “No need,” she said, already scanning the beginnings of the countryside outside the window. Was she American, I asked. She was. “Me too,” I said. “I could tell from your accent,” she added with a smile. I explained that I’d been living in Italy for almost thirty years, but couldn’t for the life of me undo the accent. When I asked, she replied she had settled in Italy with her parents when she was twelve. We were both headed for Rome. “For work?” I asked. “No, not work. It’s my father. He’s not well.” Then, raising her eyes at me: “Might explain the glumness, I suppose.” “Is it serious?” “I think so.” “I’m sorry,” I said. She shrugged her shoulders. “Life!” Then, changing her tone: “And you? Business or pleasure?” I smiled at the mock-formulaic question and explained that I had been invited to give a reading to university students. But I was also meeting my son, who lived in Rome and was picking me up at the station. “Surely a sweet boy.” I could tell she was being facetious. But I liked her breezy, informal manner that skidded from sullen to sprightly and assumed mine did as well. Her tone jibed with her casual clothes: scuffed hiking boots, a pair of jeans, no makeup, and a half-unbuttoned, faded, reddish lumberjack shirt worn over a black T-shirt. And yet, despite the rumpled look, she had green eyes and dark eyebrows. She knows, I thought, she knows. Probably knows why I made that silly comment about her glumness. I was sure strangers were always finding one pretext or another to start a conversation with her. Which explains that irritated don’t you even try look she projects wherever she goes. After her ironic comment about my son, I was not surprised to find our conversation lagging. Time to pick up our respective books. But then she turned to me and asked point-blank: “Are you excited about seeing your son?” Again, I thought she was ribbing me somehow, but her tone was not flippant. There was something at once alluring and disarming in the way she got personal and cut straight through the hurdles between strangers on a train. I liked it. Perhaps she wanted to know what a man almost twice her age felt before meeting his son. Or perhaps she simply didn’t feel like reading. She was waiting for me to answer. “So, are you happy—maybe? Nervous—maybe?” “Not really nervous, or just a bit, perhaps,” I said. “A parent is always scared of being an imposition, to say nothing of a bore.” “You think you’re a bore?” I loved that what I’d just said had caught her by surprise. “Maybe I am. But then, let’s face it, who isn’t.” “I don’t think my father is a bore.” Had I perhaps offended her? “Then I take it back,” I said. She looked at me and smiled. “Not so fast.” She prods, then drills right through you. In this, she reminded me of my son—she was slightly older, but had the same ability to call out all my gaffes and cagey little ploys, leaving me scuttled after we’d argued and made up. What kind of person are you when someone gets to know you? I wanted to ask. Are you funny, jovial, playful, or is there a glum, ill-tempered serum coursing in your veins that clouds your features and blots out all the laughter promised by that smile and those green eyes? I wanted to know—because I couldn’t tell. I was about to compliment her on her ability to read people so well when her phone rang. Boyfriend, of course! What else. I’d grown so used to constant cell phone interruptions, that it was no longer possible for me to meet students over coffee or talk to my colleagues or to my son even without a mobile phone call barging in. Saved by the phone, silenced by the phone, shunted by the phone. “Hi, Pa,” she said as soon as it rang. I believed she was picking up the phone right away to prevent the loud chime from disturbing other passengers. But what surprised me was how she yelled into her phone. “It’s the damned train. It stopped, I’ve no idea for how long, but should be no more than two hours. See you soon.” The father was asking her something. “Of course I did, you old goon, how could I forget.” He asked something else. “That too.” Silence. “Me too. Lots and lots.” She clicked off the phone and tossed it into her backpack, as if to say: We’re not going to be interrupted again. She gave me an uneasy smile. “Parents,” she finally said, meaning The same everywhere, aren’t they? But then she explained. “I see him every weekend—I’m his weekend wallah—my siblings and his caregiver take care of him weekdays.” Before giving me a chance to say another word, she asked, “So, did you prettify yourself for tonight’s event?” What a way to describe what I wore! “Do I look prettified?” I replied, bandying the word back at her in jest so she’d not think I was fishing for compliments. “Well, the pocket square, the well-pressed shirt, no tie, but then the cuff links? I’d say you gave it some thought. Old-school a bit, but dapper.” We both smiled. “Actually, I have this,” I said, half removing a colorful necktie from my jacket pocket and slipping it back in. I wanted her to see that I had enough of a sense of humor to poke fun at myself. “Just as I thought,” she said. “Prettified! Not like a retired professor in Sunday clothes, but almost. So, what do the two of you do in Rome?” Was she ever going to let up? Had I started something with my initial question that made her think we could be so informal? “We meet every five or six weeks. He’s been living in Rome but will soon be moving to Paris. I miss him already. I like spending the day with him; we do nothing, really, mostly walk, though it usually turns out to be the same walk: his Rome, by the conservatory, my Rome, where I used to live as a young teacher. Eventually we’ll always have lunch at Armando’s. He puts up with me or maybe he enjoys my company, I still can’t tell, maybe both, but we’ve ritualized these visits: Via Vittoria, Via Belsiana, Via del Babuino. Sometimes we wander off all the way to the Protestant Cemetery. They’re like the markers of our lives. We’ve nicknamed them our vigils after the way pious people stop at various madonnelle—street shrines—to pay homage to the Madonna of the street. Neither of us forgets: lunch, walk, vigils. I’m lucky. Walking around Rome with him is itself a vigil. Everywhere you turn you stumble on memories—your own, someone else’s, the city’s. I like Rome at twilight, he likes it afternoons, and there’ve been times when we’ll have an afternoon tea anywhere just to drag things out a bit till evening sets in and we have drinks.” “And that’s it?” “That’s it. We’ll walk Via Margutta for me, then Via Belsiana for him—old loves in both our cases.” “Vigils of past vigils?” joked the young woman on the train. “Is he married?” “No.” “Does he have someone?” “I don’t know. I suspect there must be someone. But I do worry about him. There was someone quite a while back and I did ask if there was anyone now, but all he did was shake his head and say, ‘Don’t ask, Papa, don’t ask.’ It meant no one or everyone, and I couldn’t tell which was worse. He used to be so open with me.” “I think he was being honest with you.” “Yes, in a way.” “I like him,” said the young woman sitting diagonally across from me. “Maybe because I’m very much the same. Sometimes I’m blamed for being too open, too forward, and then for being too guarded and withdrawn.” “I don’t think he’s withdrawn with others. But I don’t think he’s very happy.” “I know how he feels.” “Isn’t there someone in your life?” “If you only knew.” “What?” I asked. The word sprang out of me like a surprised and doleful sigh. What could she mean—that there was no one in her life, or that there were too many, or that the man in her life had walked out on her and left her devastated with nothing but an urge to take out her anger on herself or on a succession of beaux? Or did people simply come and go, come and go, as I feared so many did with my own son—or was she the sort who slips in and out of people’s lives without leaving a trace or a keepsake? “I don’t know if I’m the type who even likes people, much less falls in love with them.” I could just see it in the two of them: the same embittered, impassive, injured hearts. “Is it that you don’t like people, or that you just grow tired of them and can’t for the life of you remember why you ever found them interesting?” She was suddenly quiet, looked totally startled, and didn’t utter a word. Her eyes stared straight at me. Had I offended her again? “How could you have known that?” she finally asked. This was the first time I’d seen her turn serious and look cross. I could see her whetting some well-honed words with which to cut down my presumptuous meddling into her private life. I shouldn’t have said anything. “We’ve met no more than fifteen minutes ago, and yet you know me! How could you have known this about me?” Then, catching herself: “How much do you charge an hour?” “On the house. But if I know anything it’s because I think we’re all like that. Plus, you’re young and you’re beautiful, and I’m sure men gravitate to you all the time, so it’s not that you have a hard time meeting someone.” Had I once again spoken out of turn and crossed a line? To walk back the compliment, I added, “It’s just that the magic of someone new never lasts long enough. We only want those we can’t have. It’s those we lost or who never knew we existed who leave their mark. The others barely echo.” “Is this the case with Miss Margutta?” she asked. This woman doesn’t miss a beat, I thought. I liked the name Miss Margutta. It cast whatever existed years ago between us in a mild and docile, almost laughable light. “I’ll never really know. We were together for so short a while and it happened so fast.” “How long ago?” I thought for a moment. “I’m ashamed to say.” “Oh, just say it!” “At least two decades. Well, almost three.” “And?” “We met at a party when I was a teacher in Rome at the time. She was with someone, I was with someone, we happened to speak, and neither wished to stop. Eventually she and her boyfriend left the party, and soon after, we left as well. We didn’t even exchange numbers. But I couldn’t put her out of my mind. So I called the friend who’d invited me to the party and asked if he had her phone number. And here is the joke. A day earlier, she’d called him to ask for my phone number. ‘I heard you were looking for me,’ I said when I finally called her. I should have introduced myself, but I wasn’t really thinking, I was nervous. “She recognized my voice right away, or perhaps our friend had already warned her. ‘I was going to call you,’ she said. ‘But you didn’t,’ I replied. ‘No, I didn’t.’ Which is when she said something that showed she had more courage than I and it sent my pulse racing, because I didn’t expect it and will never forget it. ‘So, how do we do this?’ she asked. How do we do this? With that one sentence I knew my life was being pushed out of its familiar orbit. No one I knew had ever directed such frank, almost feral words at me.” “I like her.” “What was there not to like. Blunt and forward, and so to-the-point that I had to make a decision right then and there. ‘Let’s have lunch,’ I said. ‘Because dinner is difficult, right?’ she asked. I loved the bold, implicit irony in what she’d said. ‘Let’s have lunch—as in today,’ I said. ‘As in today it is.’ We laughed at the speed with which things were happening. Lunch, that day, was scarcely an hour away.” “Did it bother you that she meant to cheat on her boyfriend?” “No. Nor did it bother me that I was doing the same thing. The lunch lasted a long time. I walked her to her home on Via Margutta, then she walked me back to where we’d had lunch, and then I walked her back to her home again. “‘Tomorrow?’ I asked, still uncertain whether I wasn’t pushing things. ‘Absolutely, tomorrow.’ It was the week before Christmas. By Tuesday afternoon we did something totally crazy: we bought two plane tickets and flew to London.” “So romantic!” “Everything went so fast and felt so natural, that neither saw the need to discuss the matter with our partners or give them a second thought. We simply let go all our inhibitions. In those days we still had inhibitions.” “You mean unlike today?” “I wouldn’t know.” “No, I suppose you wouldn’t.” Her oblique taunt let me know I was meant to be slightly riled. I chuckled. She did as well, her way of signaling that she knew I was being disingenuous. “In any event, it ended right away. She went back to her boyfriend, and I to my girlfriend. We did not remain friends. But I attended their wedding, and eventually I invited them to ours. They stayed married. We didn’t. Voilà.” “Why did you let her go back to her boyfriend?” “Why? Perhaps because I was never totally persuaded by my feelings. I just didn’t fight to keep her, which she already knew I wouldn’t. Perhaps I wanted to be in love and feared I wasn’t and preferred our little limbo in London to facing up to what I didn’t feel for her. Perhaps I preferred to doubt rather than know. So how much do you charge per hour?” “Touché!” When was the last time I’d spoken to someone like this? “So tell me about the person in your life,” I said. “I’m sure you’re seeing someone special right now?” “Seeing someone, yes.” “For how long?” Then I stopped short. “If I may ask.” “You may ask. Barely four months.” Then, shrugging her shoulders: “Doesn’t merit writing home about.” “Do you like him?” “I like him fine. We get along. And we like many of the same things. But we’re just two roommates pretending to have a life together. We don’t.” “What a way to put it. Two roommates pretending to have a life together. Sad.” “It is sad. But what’s also sad is that, in these past few moments, I may have shared more with you than in a whole week with him.” “Maybe you’re not the kind who opens up to people.” “But I’m speaking with you.” “I’m a stranger, and with strangers opening up is easy.” “The only ones I can speak frankly with are my father and Pavlova, my dog, and neither is going to be around much longer. Besides, my father hates my current boyfriend.” “Not so unusual for a father.” “Actually, he worshipped my previous boyfriend.” “Did you?” She smiled, already anticipating that she’d toss off her answer with a dash of humor: “No, I didn’t.” She thought for a moment. “My previous boyfriend wanted to marry me. I told him no. I was so relieved that he didn’t make a fuss when we broke up. Then not six months later, I heard he was getting married. I was livid. If I was ever hurt and cried for love it was on the day I heard he was marrying a woman we had spent hours and months making fun of when we were together.” Silence. “Jealous without being the slightest bit in love—you are difficult,” I finally said. She gave me a look that was at once veiled reproof for daring to speak this way about her and bewildered curiosity that wished to know more. “I’ve known you for less than an hour on a train. And yet you totally understand me. I like it. But I might as well tell you of this other, terrible defect.” “What now?” We both laughed. “I never stay close with anyone I’ve had a relationship with. Most people don’t like to burn bridges. I seem to blow them up—probably because there wasn’t much of a bridge to start with. Sometimes I leave everything behind in their apartment and simply disappear. I hate the drawn-out process of packing up and moving out and those unavoidable postmortems that turn into teary-eyed pleas to stay together; above all I hate the lingering pretense of an attachment after we don’t even want to be touched by someone we no longer recall wanting to sleep with. You’re right: I don’t know why I start with anyone. The sheer annoyance of a new relationship. Plus the small home habits I need to put up with. The smell of his birdcage. The way he likes his CDs stacked. The sound of an ancient radiator in the middle of the night that wakes me but never him. He wants to shut the windows. I like them open. I’ll drop my clothes wherever; he wants our towels folded and put away. He likes the tube of toothpaste squeezed neatly from the bottom up; I squeeze it whatever way I can and always lose the cap, which he always finds somewhere on the floor behind the toilet bowl. The remote control has its place, the milk needs to stand close but not too close to the freezer, underwear and socks belong in this drawer but not that drawer. “And yet, I’m not difficult. I’m actually a good person, just a bit opinionated. But it’s only a front. I put up with everyone and everything. At least for a while. Then one day it just hits me: I don’t want to be with this guy, don’t want him near me, need to get away. I fight this feeling. But as soon as a man senses this, he’ll hound me with despairing puppy eyes. Once I spot that look, pfffff, I’m gone and immediately find someone else. “Men!” she finally said, as though that one word summed up all the shortcomings most women are willing to overlook and learn to put up with and ultimately forgive in the men they hope to love for the rest of their lives even when they know they won’t. “I hate to see anyone hurt.” A shadow hovered over her features. I wished I could touch her face, gently. She caught the glance, I lowered my eyes. * * * Once again, I noticed her boots. Wild, untamed boots, as though they’d been dragged on craggy treks and acquired an aged, weatherworn look, which meant she trusted them. She liked her things worn and broken in. She liked comfort. Her thick navy woolen socks were men’s socks, probably lifted from the drawer of the man she claimed she had no love for. But the mid-season leather biker’s jacket looked very expensive. Prada, most likely. Had she dashed out of her boyfriend’s home, and in her hurry, thrown on the first items at hand with a hasty I’m heading out to my dad’s, call you this evening? She was wearing a man’s watch. His too? Or did she just prefer men’s watches? Everything about her suggested something gritty, rugged, unfinished. And then I caught a sliver of skin between her socks and the cuff of her jeans—she had the smoothest ankles. “Tell me about your father,” I said. “My father? He’s not doing well, and we’re losing him.” Then she interrupted herself: “Do you still charge by the hour?” “As I said, confiding comes easier between strangers who’ll never meet again.” “You think so?” “What, confiding on a train?” “No, that we’ll never meet again?” “What are the chances?” “True, very true.” We exchanged smiles. “So go on about your father.” “I’ve been thinking about this. My love for him has changed. It’s no longer a spontaneous love, but a brooding, cautious, caregiver’s love. Not the real deal. Still, we are very open with each other, and there is nothing I’m ashamed to tell him. My mother left almost two decades ago, and since then it’s been just him and me. He had a girlfriend for a while, but now he lives alone. Someone comes to take care of him, cooks, does his laundry, cleans and tidies up. Today is his seventy-sixth birthday. Hence the cake,” she said, pointing to the square white box resting on the top bin. She seemed embarrassed by it, which may be why she threw in a tiny giggle when she pointed to it. “He said he invited two friends for lunch, but he still hasn’t heard from them, and my guess is they won’t show up, no one does these days. Neither will my siblings. He likes profiteroles from an old shop not far from where I live in Florence. It reminds him of better days when he used to teach there once. He shouldn’t have anything sweet of course, but…” She didn’t need to finish the sentence. The silence between us lasted awhile. Once again I made a motion to pick up my book, convinced we were done talking this time. A bit later, with my book still open, I started looking out at the rolling Tuscan landscape and my mind began to drift. An odd and shapeless thought about how she’d changed seats and was now sitting next to me began to settle on my mind. I knew I was dozing off. “You’re not reading,” she said. Then, seeing she might have disturbed me, she immediately added, “I can’t either.” “Tired of reading,” I said, “can’t focus.” “Is it interesting?” she finally asked, looking at the cover of my book. “It’s not bad. Rereading Dostoyevsky after many years can be a bit disappointing.” “Why?” “Have you read Dostoyevsky?” “Yes. I adored him when I was fifteen.” “So did I. His vision of life is one that an adolescent can immediately grasp: tormented, filled with contradictions, and lots of bile, venom, shame, love, pity, sorrow, and spite, and the most disarming acts of kindness and self-sacrifice—all of it so unevenly thrust together. To the adolescent I was, Dostoyevsky was my introduction to complex psychology. I thought I was a thoroughly confused person—but all his characters were no less confused. I felt at home. My sense is that one learns more about the blotchy makeup of human psychology from Dostoyevsky than from Freud, or any psychiatrist for that matter.” She was silent. “I see a shrink,” she finally said, with an almost audible rise of protest in her voice. Had I yet again snubbed her without meaning to? “I see one too,” I rejoindered, perhaps to take back what might have seemed an unintended slight. We stared at each other. I liked her warm and trusting smile; it suggested something frail and genuine, perhaps even vulnerable. No wonder the men in her life closed in on her. They knew what they were losing the moment she turned her eyes away. Out went the smile, or the languor when she asked heart-to-heart questions while staring with those piercing green eyes that never let up, out the disquieting need for intimacy that her glance tore out of every man when your eyes happened to lock on her in a public space and you knew there went your life. She was doing it right now. She made intimacy want to happen, made it easy, as if you’d always had it in you to give, and were craving to share it but realized you’d never find it in yourself unless it was with her. I wanted to hold her, touch her hand, let a finger drift along her forehead. “So why the shrink?” she asked, as though she had pondered the idea and found it totally bewildering. “If I may ask,” she added, smiling as she parodied my own words. Obviously she wasn’t used to a softer, more congenial approach when speaking to a stranger. I asked why she was surprised I was seeing a shrink. “Because you look so settled, so—prettified.” “Hard to say. Maybe because the empty spaces of adolescence when I discovered Dostoyevsky never got filled. I once believed they’d be filled at some point; now I am not sure such spaces are ever filled. Still, I want to understand. Some of us never jumped to the next level. We lost track of where we were headed and as a result stayed where we started.” “So this is why you’re rereading Dostoyevsky?” I smiled at the aptness of the question. “Perhaps because I am always trying to retrace my steps back to a spot where I should have jumped on the ferryboat headed to the other bank called life but ended up dawdling on the wrong wharf or, with my luck, took the wrong ferryboat altogether. It’s all an older man’s game, you know.” “You don’t sound like the sort of person who takes the wrong ferry. Did you?” Was she teasing me? “I was thinking of this when I boarded the train in Genoa this morning, because it occurred to me that perhaps there were one or two ferryboats I should have sailed on instead and never did.” “Why didn’t you?” I shook my head then shrugged my shoulders to suggest I didn’t know why or didn’t want to say. “Aren’t those the absolute worst scenarios: the things that might have happened but never did and might still happen though we’ve given up hoping they could.” I must have looked at her with totally baffled eyes. “Where did you ever learn to think this way?” “I read a lot.” Then, with a self-conscious glance: “I like talking to you.” She paused a moment. “So, was your marriage the wrong ferryboat?” This woman was brilliant. And she was beautiful. And she thought along the same twisted, meandering paths I took sometimes. “At first, no,” I replied, “or at least I didn’t want to see it that way. But after our son left for the States there was so little between us that it felt as though his entire childhood was nothing more than a dress rehearsal for our unavoidable separation. We barely talked and when we did, it seemed we seldom spoke the same language. We were exceptionally cordial and kind, but even when we were in the same room we felt so alone together. We’d sit at the same dining table, but weren’t eating together, slept in the same bed but not together, watched the same programs, traveled to the same cities, shared the same yoga instructor, laughed at the same jokes but never together, and sat side by side at crowded movie theaters, but never rubbed elbows. There came a time when I’d spot two lovers kissing on the street or even hugging and didn’t know why they were kissing. We were alone together—until one day one of us broke the pickle dish.” “Pickle dish?” “Sorry, Edith Wharton. She left me for someone who was my best friend, and who is still my friend. The irony is that I wasn’t in the least bit sorry she’d found someone.” “Maybe because it freed you to find someone else.” “I never did. We stayed good friends, and I know she worries about me.” “Should she?” “No. So, why the shrink?” I asked, eager to change the subject. “Me? Loneliness. I can’t stand being by myself yet I can’t wait to be alone. Look at me. I am alone here on a train, happy to be with my book, away from a man I won’t ever love, but I would much rather talk to a stranger. No offense, I hope.” I smiled back: None taken. “I tend to talk to everyone these days, I start conversations with the mailman just to gab a bit, but never tell my boyfriend how I feel, what I read, what I want, what I hate. In any event, he wouldn’t listen, much less understand. He has no sense of humor. I need to explain every punch line to him.” We continued chatting until the conductor came to collect our tickets. He looked at the dog, complained that dogs weren’t allowed on the train except in cages. “So what am I supposed to do?” she snapped back. “Throw her overboard? Pretend I’m blind? Or get off now and miss my father’s seventy-sixth birthday party which won’t really be a party because it’s his very last since he’s actually dying? Just tell me.” The conductor wished her a good day. “Anche a Lei,” she muttered. And to you too. Then, turning to her dog: “And stop drawing attention to yourself!” Then my phone rang. I was tempted to stand up and take the call in the empty spot between the cars, but decided to stay put. The dog, stirred by the chime, was now staring at me with gaping, quizzical eyes as if to say, You too with the phone, now? My son, I mouthed to my companion, who smiled at me and then, without asking, took advantage of the sudden interruption to gesture she was going to the bathroom. She handed me the leash and whispered, “She won’t be any trouble.” I looked at her when she stood up and, for the first time, realized that her rough-hewn look wasn’t as dressed down as I’d initially thought, and that she was, once she stood up, more attractive yet. Had I noticed this earlier and tried to brush the thought away? Or had I really been blind? It would have pleased me no end had my son seen me stepping off the train in her company. I knew we’d be talking about her on our way to Armando’s. I could even foresee how he’d start the conversation: So tell me about that model type you were chitchatting with at Termini … But then just as I was fantasizing his reaction, the phone call changed everything. He was calling to say he was not going to be able to meet me at all that day. I gasped a plaintive Why? He was replacing a pianist who’d fallen ill and had a recital in Naples that same day. When would he be back? Tomorrow, he said. I loved hearing his voice. What was he playing? Mozart, all Mozart. Meanwhile my companion returned from the bathroom and silently resumed her seat across from me, leaning forward, which signaled she meant to continue speaking after I’d hung up. I stared at her more intensely than I’d done during our entire trip, partly because I was busy with someone else on the phone, which gave my glance a vaguely inattentive, guileless, roaming air, but also because it allowed me to keep staring at those eyes that were so used to being stared at and that liked being stared at, and might never have guessed that if I found the courage to return her gaze as fiercely as hers was at that moment it was also because, in staring, I’d begun to nurse the impression that in her eyes mine were just as beautiful. Definitely an older man’s fantasy. There was a halt in my conversation with my son. “But I was so counting on taking a long walk with you. This is why I took the earlier train. I came for you, not for the paltry reading.” I was disappointed but I also knew that I had my companion as an audience, and perhaps I was hamming it up a bit for her as well. Then, realizing I had gone too far with my complaint, I caught myself: “But I understand. I do.” The girl seated diagonally in front of me cast an anxious look in my direction. Then she shrugged her shoulders, not to display her indifference to what was happening between me and my son, but to tell me, or so I thought, to leave the poor boy alone—Don’t make him feel guilty. To the shrug she added a gesture with her left hand to suggest I should just let it go, get over it. “So tomorrow?” I asked. Would he come and pick me up at the hotel? Midafternoon, he replied—fourish? “Fourish,” I said. “Vigils,” he said. “Vigils,” I replied. “You’ve heard him,” I finally said, turning to her. “I heard you.” She was taunting me again. And she was smiling. A side of me thought she’d leaned even more toward me and had thought of standing up to move to the seat next to me and put both hands in mine. Had this crossed her mind and was I seizing on her wish to do so, or was I simply making it up because the wish was in me? “I was looking forward to our lunch. I wanted to laugh with him and hear about his life, his recitals, his career. I was even hoping to spot him before he spotted me and that he’d find a moment to meet you.” “It’s not the end of the world. You’ll see him tomorrow fourish?” Yet again, I caught the jeer in her voice. And I loved it. “The irony, however—” I started to add, but then changed my mind. “The irony, however?” she inquired. She doesn’t let go, does she, I thought. I was silent for a moment. “The irony is that I’m not sorry he’s not coming today. I have quite a bit to do before the reading and maybe I could use a rest at the hotel instead of walking about the city as we normally do when I’m just visiting him.” “Why should that surprise you? You lead separate lives, regardless of how they intersect or how many vigils the two of you share.” I liked what she had just said. It didn’t reveal anything I didn’t already know, but it showed a degree of thoughtfulness and care that surprised me and didn’t seem to fit the person who’d sat down in a huff on boarding the train. “How do you know so much?” I asked, feeling emboldened and staring at her. She smiled. “To quote someone I met on a train once: ‘We’re all this way.’” She liked this as much as I did. As we neared the Rome station, our train began to stall. Minutes later, it stirred again. “I’m taking a taxi when we get to the station,” she said. “It’s what I’m doing.” It turned out her father’s home was five minutes away from my hotel. He lived along the Lungotevere and I was staying on Via Garibaldi, just a few steps from where I used to live years ago. “Split a cab, then,” she said. We heard the announcement of Roma Termini, and as the train crawled toward the station, we watched row upon row of shabby buildings and travertine warehouses come into view, each displaying old billboards and faded, dirty colors. Not the Rome I loved. The sight unsettled me and made me feel ambivalent about the visit and the reading and the prospect of being back in a place that already stored too many memories, some good, most less so. Suddenly, I resolved that I’d give my reading that evening, have my de rigueur cocktail with old colleagues, then find a way to duck the usual dinner invitation, and come up with something to do by myself, maybe catch a film, and then stay indoors the next day till my son dropped by at four. “At least I hope they booked the room with the large balcony and the view of all the domes,” I said. I wanted to show, despite my son’s phone call, that I knew how to look at the brighter side of things. “I’ll check in, wash my hands, find a good place to have lunch, then rest.” “Why? Don’t you like cake?” she asked. “I like cake fine. Can you suggest a good spot for lunch?” “Yes.” “Where?” “My father’s. Come for lunch. Our home couldn’t be closer to your hotel.” I smiled, truly moved by the spontaneous offer. She was feeling sorry for me. “That’s very sweet of you. But I really shouldn’t. Your father is having a cherished moment with the person he loves the most and you want me to crash his party? Plus, he doesn’t know me from Adam.” “But I know you,” she said, as though this would change my mind. “You don’t even know my name.” “Didn’t you say Adam?” We both laughed. “Samuel.” “Please come. It will be very simple and low-key, I promise.” Still, I couldn’t accept. “Just say yes.” “I can’t.” The train had finally arrived. She picked up her jacket and her book, shouldered her backpack, wrapped the dog leash around her hand, and took down the white box from the upper bin. “This is the cake,” she finally said. “Oh, just say yes.” I shook my head to convey a deferential but determined no. “Here’s what I propose. I’ll pick out a fish and leafy greens on Campo de’ Fiori—I always buy fish, cook fish, eat fish—and before you know it, I’ll throw together an amazing lunch in no more than twenty minutes. He’ll be happy to see someone new at the door.” “What makes you think he and I will have anything to say to each other? It could be terribly awkward. Besides, what do you suppose he’s going to think?” It took her a moment to catch on. “He won’t think that at all,” she finally said. Clearly, it hadn’t even crossed her mind. “Besides,” she added, “I’m old enough, and he’s old enough to think whatever.” A moment of silence elapsed as we stepped off the train and landed on the crowded platform. I couldn’t help but give a hasty and discreet look around. Perhaps my son had changed his mind and meant to surprise me after all. But no one was waiting for me on the platform. “Listen”—it suddenly occurred to me—“and I don’t even know your name—” “Miranda.” The name struck me. “Listen, Miranda, it’s really lovely of you to invite me, but—” “We’re strangers on a train, Sami, and I know talk is cheap,” she said, already fabricating a nickname for me, “but I’ve opened up to you and you’ve opened up to me. I don’t think either of us knows many people with whom we’ve been so casually honest. Let’s not make this the stereotypical moment that happens on a train and then stays on the train like an umbrella or a forgotten pair of gloves left behind somewhere. I know I’ll regret it. Plus, it would make me, Miranda, very happy.” I loved how she’d said this. There was a moment of silence. I wasn’t hesitating, but I could right away tell she had interpreted my silence as acquiescence. Before picking up her phone to call her father, she asked if I didn’t have to make a phone call as well, perhaps? Her perhaps moved me, but I wasn’t sure why or what precisely it suggested, nor did I want to speculate and be proven wrong. This girl thinks of everything, I thought. I shook my head. I didn’t have anyone to call. “Pa. I’m bringing a guest,” she shouted into her phone. He mustn’t have heard. “A guest,” she repeated. Then, trying to keep the dog from jumping on me: “What do you mean what kind of guest? A guest. He’s a professor. Like you.” She turned to me to make sure she had inferred correctly. I nodded. Then the answer to the obvious question: “No, you’re totally wrong. I’m bringing fish. Twenty minutes absolute max, I promise. “This should give him time to put on clean clothes,” she joked. Would she ever suspect that if I had already resolved to cancel dinner with colleagues tonight it was because, without quite admitting it to myself, I was already coddling the distant hope of having dinner with her instead? How would that ever come about? When we finally arrived on the corner of Ponte Sisto, I asked the driver to stop. “Why don’t I drop my bag in my room and join you at your dad’s—say in ten minutes.” But she grabbed my left arm as the car was about to stop. “Absolutely not. If you’re anything like me you’ll check into your hotel, drop your bag in your room, wash your hands, which you said you’re so eager to do, and then after letting a good fifteen minutes pass, you’ll call to say you’ve changed your mind and decided you can’t come. Or you might not call at all. Maybe, if you’re anything like me, you’ll even find the right words to wish my father a happy birthday and mean it as well. Aren’t you like me?” This too moved me. “Maybe.” “Then if you’re really anything like me you probably like being found out, admit it.” “If you’re anything like me you’re already wondering Why did I even invite this fellow?” “Then I’m not like you.” We both laughed. When was the last time? “What?” she asked. “Nothing.” “Right!” Had she read this too? When we got out, we rushed to Campo de’ Fiori, where we found her fish vendor’s stand. Before ordering, she asked me to hold the leash. I was reluctant to approach the stand with the dog, but they knew her there, and she said it wasn’t a problem. “What kind of fish do you like?” “The easiest to cook,” I replied. “How about some scallops as well, they seem to have plenty today— Are they from today’s catch?” she asked. “This dawn,” replied the vendor. “Are you sure?” “Of course I am sure.” They’d been doing this for years. As she leaned over to inspect the scallops, I caught sight of her back. I had an impulse to put an arm around her waist, her shoulders, and kiss her on her neck and face. I looked away and instead eyed the liquor store across from the stand. “Would your father like a dry white from Friuli?” “He shouldn’t drink wine, but I’d love a dry white from anywhere.” “I’ll get a Sancerre as well.” “You’re not planning on killing my father, are you?” When the fish and the scallops were wrapped, she remembered the vegetables. On our way to a nearby store, I couldn’t resist: “Why me?” “Why me what?” “Why are you inviting me?” “Because you like trains, because you were stood up today, because you ask too many questions, because I want to know you better. Is that so difficult?” she said. I didn’t press her to explain. Perhaps I didn’t want to hear that she liked me no more, no less than she liked scallops or leafy greens. She found spinach, I spotted small persimmons, touched, then sniffed them, and saw that they were ripe. It was, I said, the first time this year that I’d be eating persimmons. “Then you have to make a wish.” “What do you mean?” She affected exasperation. “Every time you eat a fruit for the first time that year you need to make a wish. I’m surprised you didn’t know that.” I thought for a few seconds. “I can’t think of a wish.” “Some life,” she said, meaning either that my life was so enviably put together that there was nothing left to wish for—or that it was so hopelessly bereft of joy that wishing something was a luxury no longer worth considering. “You have to wish. Think harder.” “Can I yield my wish to you?” “I’ve already had my wish.” “When?” “In the taxi.” “What was it?” “How quickly we forget: that you’d come for lunch.” “You mean you wasted a whole wish on having me over for lunch!” “I did. And don’t make me regret it.” I didn’t say anything. She squeezed my arm on our way to the wine store. I decided to stop by the florist nearby. “He’ll love the flowers.” “I haven’t bought flowers in years.” She gave a perfunctory nod. “They’re not just for him,” I said. “I know,” she said ever so lightly, almost feigning to overlook what I’d said. * * * Her father’s home was a penthouse overlooking the Tiber. He had heard the elevator coming up and was already waiting at the doorway. Only one of the doors was opened, so that it was difficult to fit in with the dog, the cake, the fish, scallops, and spinach, the two bottles of wine, my duffel bag, her backpack, my bag of persimmons, and the flowers—all seemed to want to thrust their way in at the same time. Her father attempted to relieve her of some of her packages. Instead, she let him have the dog, who knew him and right away began jumping and nuzzling him. “He loves the dog more than me,” she said. “I don’t love the dog more than you. The dog is just easier to love.” “Too subtle for me, Pa,” she said, and right away didn’t just kiss him but, with her hands still holding the packages, slammed into him with her whole body and kissed him on both cheeks. This, I presumed, was how she loved: fiercely, no holds barred. Once inside, she dropped the bags, took my jacket, and laid it down neatly on the arm of a sofa in the living room. She also took my bag and placed it on the rug by the sofa then fluffed up a large sofa cushion that seemed to bear the imprint of the head that must have been lying on it moments earlier. On her way to the kitchen, she also straightened two pictures that hung slightly lopsided against the wall, then, opening two French windows that led to the sunbaked roof terrace, complained that the living room was too stuffy on such a beautiful autumn day. In the kitchen, she cut off the bottom tips of the flower stems, found a vase, and set the flowers in it. “I love gladiolas,” she said. “So you must be the guest?” said the father by way of welcome. “Piacere,” he added, before reverting to English. We shook hands, hesitated outside the kitchen, and then watched her unwrap the fish, scallops, and spinach. She rummaged through the cabinets, found the spices, and right away used the zapper to light the stove. “We are going to drink some wine, but, Pa, you decide whether you want to drink it now or with the fish.” He mused for a moment. “Both now and with the fish.” “So we’re already starting,” she said reprovingly. Pretending to be chastened, the old man said nothing then added an exasperated, “Daughters! What can you do.” Father and daughter spoke the same way. The father then ushered me down a corridor lined with framed pictures of past and present family members, all so formally clothed that I failed to recognize Miranda in any of them. The father was now wearing a colorful ascot, under a very bright striped pink shirt; his blue jeans were creased to a crisp and looked as though they’d been put on minutes earlier. His long white hair was combed back and gave him the telltale look of an aging movie star. But he wore a pair of very old slippers and obviously hadn’t had time to shave. His daughter had done well to call to warn him of a visitor. The living room bore the lingering spare elegance of a Danish fad that had gone out of fashion a few decades earlier but was on the verge of being the rage again. The ancient fireplace had been refurbished to fit in with the decor but seemed a defunct remnant of older times in the life of the apartment. The slick white wall displayed a small abstract painting in the style of Nicolas de Staël. “I like that one,” I finally said, trying to make conversation while staring at the view of a beach as seen on a wintry day. “That one was given to me by my wife years ago. I didn’t much like it at the time; but now I realize it’s the best thing I own.” The old gentleman, I gathered, had never recovered from his divorce. “Your wife had good taste,” I added, already regretting using the past tense without knowing whether I had strayed into delicate terrain. “And these here,” I said, staring at three sepia-toned views of Roman life in the early nineteenth century, “look like Pinellis, don’t they?” “They are Pinellis,” said the proud father who might have interpreted my comment as a slight. I’d been tempted to say imitation Pinellis but had caught myself in time. “I bought them for my wife but she didn’t care for them. So they’re living with me now. Afterward, who knows. Maybe she’ll take them back. She owns a successful gallery in Venice.” “Thanks to you, Pa.” “No, thanks to her and only her.” I tried not to let on that I already knew his wife had left him. But then he must have guessed that Miranda had told me about their marriage. “We’re still friends,” he added by way of clarifying the situation, “maybe good friends.” “And they,” added Miranda, handing each of us a glass of white wine, “have a daughter who is constantly being tugged this way and that between them. I’m giving you less wine than our guest, Pa,” she said as she handed him his glass. “I get it, I get it,” replied the father, who rested a palm on his daughter’s face in a gesture that spoke all the love in the world. There was no doubt. She was lovable. “And you know her how?” he asked, turning to me. “Actually, I don’t know her at all,” I said. “We met on the train today, basically less than three hours ago.” The father seemed a bit flummoxed and was awkwardly trying to conceal it. “And so…” “And so nothing, Pa. The poor guy was stood up today by his son and I took such pity on him that I figured I’d cook him a fish, feed him vegetables, maybe throw in some limp puntarelle found in your fridge, and send him packing to his hotel where he can’t wait to nap and wash his hands of us.” All three of us burst out laughing. “This is how she is. How I managed to put such a prickly urchin on the face of our planet is simply beyond me.” “Best thing you ever did, old man. But you should have seen Sami’s face when he realized he was being stood up.” “Did I look that terrible?” I asked. “She exaggerates, as always,” he said. “He’s been pouting ever since I got on the train in Florence.” “I wasn’t pouting when you got on in Florence,” I said, miming her words. “Oh, you were so pouting. Even before we started speaking. You didn’t even want to make room for my dog when I boarded. Think I didn’t notice?” Once again we all laughed. “Don’t mind her. She’s always needling people. Her way of warming up.” Her eyes were glued on me. I liked that she was trying to read my reaction to what her father had just said. Or maybe she was just looking at me, and I liked this too. When was the last time indeed? On another wall of the living room hung a series of framed black-and-white photographs of ancient statues, all in striking gradations of black, gray, silver, and white shades. When I looked back at her, both father and daughter caught my glance. “They’re all Miranda’s. She took them.” “So this is what you do?” “This is what I do,” she apologized, almost as though saying, This is all I know how to do. I regretted how I’d phrased my question. “Black and whites only. Never color,” added her father. “She travels the world—she is going to Cambodia, Vietnam, then Laos and Thailand, which she loves, but she is never happy with her work.” I couldn’t resist. “Is anyone happy with their work?” Miranda threw me a token smile of appreciation for coming to her aid. But her look might as well have meant Nice try, I don’t need rescuing. “I had no idea you were a photographer. They’re amazing.” Then, seeing she wasn’t taking the compliment, I added, “They’re stunning.” “What did I tell you? Never happy with herself. You can beat your head senseless and she still won’t accept a compliment. She has a wonderful offer to work for a large agency—” “—which she isn’t going to accept,” she said. “We’re not discussing this, Pa.” “Why?” he asked. “Because Miranda loves Florence,” she said. “We both know that her reason has nothing to do with Florence,” said the father, playing up the humor but casting a significant look at his daughter and then at me. “It has to do with her father,” he said. “You’re so pigheaded, Pa, that you’re convinced you’re the center of the universe and that without your blessing every evening star in heaven would snuff out its light and turn to ash,” she said. “Well, this pigheaded man needs a bit more wine before he turns to ashes—which, remember, Mira, is what I specified in my will.” “Not so fast,” she said, pushing the open bottle away from her father’s reach. “What she fails to understand—because of her age, I suppose—is that past a certain point dieting and watching what you eat—” “—or drink—” “—serve no purpose and actually cause more harm than good. I think people our age should be allowed to live out the term of their life as they wish. Depriving us of what we want at death’s door seems pointless, if not totally evil, don’t you think?” “I think one should always do what one wants,” I said, begrudging having been put in the father’s camp. “So speaks the man who knows exactly what he wants, right?” was the ironic broadside coming from the daughter, who hadn’t forgotten our conversation on the train. “How would you know whether I know or don’t know what I want?” I shot back. She didn’t answer. She just looked at me and didn’t lower her eyes. She wasn’t playing my little cat-and-mouse game. “Because I’m the same way,” she finally said. She’d seen right through me. And she knew that I knew it. What she may not have guessed was that I loved our playful sparring and her unwillingness to let anything slip by if it came from me. It made me feel unusually important, as if we’d known each other forever and our familiarity in no way diminished our mutual regard. I needed to caress her, to put my arms around her. “Today’s youth is too bright for the likes of us,” intervened the father. “Neither of you knows the first thing about today’s youth” came the girl’s quick reply. Had I once again been inducted into her father’s nursing-home universe sooner than my age allowed? “Well, then here is one more glass of wine for you, Pa. Because I love you. And more for you as well, Mr. S.” “They don’t serve wine where I’m headed, my love, white or red, or even rosé, and frankly I want to down as much of it before they wheel away the gurney. Then I’ll sneak a bottle or two under the sheets so that when I finally get to meet His Lordship, I’ll say, ‘Here, see what goodies I brought you from confounded planet Earth.’” She did not reply but returned to the kitchen to bring lunch to the dining room. But then she changed her mind and said it was warm enough for the three of us to eat on the veranda. We each took our glasses and our silverware and proceeded to the terrace. Meanwhile, she split open the branzini she had broiled in a cast-iron frying pan, removed their bones, and on a different plate came the spinach and old puntarelle, over which, once we were seated, she sprinkled oil and freshly grated parmesan. “So tell us what you do,” said the father, turning to me. I told them that I had just finished working on my book and would soon head back to Liguria, where I lived. I gave them a very hasty outline of my career as a professor of classics and of my current project on the tragic fall of Constantinople in 1453. I told them about my life a bit, about my ex-wife who lives in Milan now, about my son who has a rising career as a pianist, and then told them how much I miss waking up to the sea when I’m away. The fall of Constantinople interested her father. “Did the residents know their city was doomed?” asked the father. “They knew.” “So why didn’t more of them flee before it was sacked?” “Ask the Jews of Germany!” There was a moment of silence. “You mean ask my parents and grandparents and most of my aunts and uncles whom I’ll soon encounter at the pearly gates?” I was unable to tell whether Miranda’s father was administering a cold shower after what I’d just said, or whether this was just another not-so-veiled reference to his declining health. Either way, I wasn’t scoring points. “Knowing that the end is near is one thing,” I added, trying to navigate a tactful course over the shoals, “but believing it is quite another. Tossing one’s entire life overboard to start from scratch in a foreign land may be a heroic act but it is totally reckless. Not many are capable of it. Where do you turn when you feel trapped and caught in a vise, when there is no exit and the house is on fire, and your window is on the fifth floor, so that plunging isn’t really an option? There is no other bank. Some people choose to take their own lives. Most, however, prefer to wear blinkers and live off hope. The streets of Constantinople overflowed with the blood of the hopeful once the Turks entered the city and sacked it clean. But I’m interested in the citizens of Constantinople who feared the end and fled, many to Venice.” “Would you have left Berlin if you were living there in, say, 1936?” Miranda asked. “I don’t know. But someone would have had to push me or threaten to leave me behind if I wasn’t ready to flee. I am reminded of a violinist who hid in his apartment in the Marais in Paris knowing that the police would come knocking at his door one night. And knock one night they did. He even managed to convince them to let him take his violin with him, and they did. But it was the first thing they took away from him. They killed him, but not in a gas chamber. Instead, in the camps, they beat him to death.” “So your reading this evening will be about Constantinople?” she asked, almost with an incredulous inflection in her voice that made her sound disappointed. It was not clear whether she meant to trivialize my work by asking the sort of question I’d just asked about hers or whether she was filled with admiration, meaning How wonderful that this should be your life’s work! Which was why I ended up answering with a meek and evasive “That’s what I do. But there are days when I am able to see my vocation for what it is: desk work, just desk work. I’m not always proud of this.” “So your life is not spent traipsing through the Aeolian Islands, then settling somewhere like Panarea, swimming at dawn, writing all day, eating from the sea, drinking Sicilian wine at night with someone half your age.” Where was this coming from? And was she making fun of what every man my age dreams of? Miranda put down her fork and lit a cigarette. I watched her shake the match with a decisive hand motion before dropping it into an ashtray. How strong and invulnerable she suddenly seemed. She was showing her other side, the one that sizes people up and makes hasty indictments, then shuts them off and never lets them back in except when she weakens, only to hold it against them that she did. Men were like matches: they caught fire and were shaken off and dropped in the first ashtray that came her way. I watched her take in her first puff. Yes, willful and unbending. Smoking with her face turned away from us made her look so distant and heartless. The type who always gets her way. Not exactly the good girl who doesn’t like to see people hurt. I liked watching her smoke. She was beautiful and unreachable, and once again I held myself back from putting my arm around her and letting my lips touch her cheek, her neck, the back of her ear. Could she tell that wanting to hold her both stirred and dismayed me, because I knew there was no room for me in her world? She had invited me for her father’s sake. What made her smoke, though? Watching her hold her cigarette, I couldn’t stop from saying: “As a French poet once said, some people smoke to put nicotine in their veins, others to put a cloud between them and others.” But then thinking she’d interpret it as a caustic remark, I quickly turned the tables on myself. “We all have ways of putting up screens to keep life at bay. I use paper.” “Do you think I keep life at bay?” Hers was a frank and hasty query, not a muffled quip asking for trouble. “I don’t know. Perhaps going about one’s daily life with all its paltry joys and sorrows is the surest way of keeping true life at bay.” “So there may be no such thing as real life. Only clumsy, ordinary, day-to-day stuff—is this what you think?” I did not answer. “I just hope there is more than the day-to-day stuff. But I never found it, maybe because finding it scares me.” I did not reply to this either. “I never speak to people about this.” “I don’t either,” I replied. “I wonder why neither of us does.” This was the girl on the train speaking. Unbending and determined yet totally adrift. We smiled feebly at each other. Then, sensing that the conversation was taking a strange and awkward turn: “He likes desk work too,” she threw in and motioned to her father. Her father picked up his cue right away. Great teamwork. “I do like desk work. I was a good professor. Then about eight years ago, I retired. I help writers and young scholars. They give me their dissertations, and I edit them. It’s lonely work but it’s lovely and peaceful work. And I always learn so much. I spend long hours this way, sometimes from dawn to midnight. Then late at night I watch television to air out my thoughts a bit.” “His problem is that he forgets to charge them.” “Yes, but they love me and I’ve grown to love each one, we’re always exchanging e-mails. And frankly, I’m not doing it for the money.” “Clearly!” retorted the daughter. “What are you working on now?” I asked. “It’s a very abstract dissertation about time. It starts with the story, or a parable as he likes to call it, of a young American World War II pilot. He was married to his high school sweetheart in the small town where they grew up. They spent about two weeks together in her parents’ home before he shipped off. A year and a day later his plane was shot down over Germany. His young wife received a letter telling her that he was presumed dead. There was no evidence of a crash nor had his remains been found. Not long afterward, his bride enrolled in a college where she eventually met a war veteran who looked like her husband. They were married and had five daughters. She died about a decade ago. A few years after her death, the site of the crash was located and her first husband’s dog tag and remains were finally recovered and confirmed through a DNA match with a very distant cousin who had never even heard of the pilot or his wife. Still, the cousin agreed to be tested. The sad part is that by the time the fragments of his body were shipped back to his hometown for proper burial, his wife, both her parents, and the pilot’s own parents and all their siblings had died. He had no one left, no family to remember, much less to mourn him. His wife herself had never mentioned him to her daughters. It was as though he had never existed. Except that one day the pilot’s wife had taken down an old box of scattered mementos that contained, among other things, the wallet the pilot had left behind. When her daughters asked whose it was, she went to the living room and took down a framed photograph of their father to reveal an old photo tucked right behind it. It was the face of her first husband. They had never known that their mother was married before. She herself never brought him up again. “To me it proves that life and time are not in sync. It’s as if time was all wrong and the wife’s life was lived on the wrong bank of the river or, worse yet, on two banks, with neither being the right one. None of us may want to claim to live life in two parallel lanes but all have many lives, one tucked beneath or right alongside the other. Some lives wait their turn because they haven’t been lived at all, while others die before they’ve lived out their time, and some are waiting to be relived because they haven’t been lived enough. Basically, we don’t know how to think of time, because time doesn’t really understand time the way we do, because time couldn’t care less what we think of time, because time is just a wobbly, unreliable metaphor for how we think about life. Because ultimately it isn’t time that is wrong for us, or we for time. It may be life itself that is wrong.” “Why do you say that?” she asked. “Because there is death. Because death, contrary to what everyone tells you, is not part of life. Death is God’s great blunder, and sunset and dawn are how he blushes for shame and asks our forgiveness each and every day. I know a thing or two on the subject.” He grew silent. “I love this dissertation,” he finally said. “You’ve been talking about it for months, Pa. Any idea when he’ll be done with it?” “Well, I think the young man is having a hard time pulling it together, partly because he does not know how to conclude it. Which is why he keeps coming up with more examples. This one is about a married couple who fell into a crevasse in an alpine glacier in Switzerland in 1942 and froze to death. Their bodies were recovered seventy-five years later, along with their shoes, a book, a pocket watch, a backpack, and a bottle. They had seven children, all but two are still alive today. The tragic disappearance of both parents cast a dark, disturbing cloud over their children’s lives. Every year, on the anniversary of their parents’ disappearance, they would climb the glacier and offer a prayer in their memory. Their youngest daughter was four years old at the time of the disappearance. DNA testing confirmed her parents’ identities and provided some type of closure.” “I hate that word: closure,” said Miranda. “Maybe because you leave doors open everywhere,” snapped the father. He gave her a sidelong, ironic glance meant to say, You know exactly what I’m referring to. She did not respond. An uncomfortable silence sat between them. I pretended to ignore it. “Another tale in the dissertation,” continued her father, “touches on an Italian soldier who after being married for twelve days is sent away to the Russian front where he disappears and is listed as missing. In Russia, however, he doesn’t die and is rescued by a woman who bears him a child. Many years later, he’ll return to Italy to feel as rudderless in a homeland he can’t begin to recognize as he does in his adopted Russia, to which he eventually returns for want of a better home. You see, two lives, two lanes, two time zones, with neither being the right one. “Then there’s the tale of a forty-year-old man who one day finally resolves to visit the tombstone of his father who died during the war shortly before his son’s birth. What strikes the son as he stands speechless before the dates on the tombstone is that his father died scarcely aged twenty—half the son’s current age—and that therefore the son is old enough to be his father’s father. Oddly, he can’t decide whether he is saddened because his father never got to see him, or because he himself never got to know his father, or because he is standing before the tombstone of someone who feels more like a dead son than a dead father.” Neither of us attempted to lend a moral to this tale. Said the father, “I find these tales very moving, but I still can’t tell why, except that I pick up a suggestion that, despite appearances, living and time are not aligned and have entirely different itineraries. And Miranda is right. Closure, if it exists at all, is either for the afterlife or for those who stay behind. Ultimately, it is the living who’ll close the ledger of my life, not I. We pass along our shadow selves and entrust what we’ve learned, lived, and known to afterpeople. What else can we give those we’ve loved after we die than pictures of who we were when we were children and had yet to become the fathers they grew up to know. I want those who outlive me to extend my life, not just to remember it.” Catching the two of us silent, her father suddenly exclaimed, “Just bring the cake. Right now I want to put a cake between me and what awaits me. Maybe He’ll appreciate a cake also, don’t you think?” “I bought a smaller cake because I knew you’d finish a larger one by the time I left on Sunday.” “As you can see she wants me to stay alive. What for, I have no idea.” “If not for yourself, then for me, old goon. Besides, don’t pretend: I’ve seen you look at women when we’re out walking the dog.” “It’s true, I still turn around when I see a beautiful pair of legs. But to tell you the truth, I forget why.” We all laughed. “I’m sure those visiting nurses will help you remember.” “I may not want to remember what I’m missing.” “I hear there’s medication to remind you.” I watched the mock squabbling between father and daughter. She left the table and went into the kitchen to bring more silverware. “Do you think my health can afford a tiny cup of coffee?” he asked loudly enough for her to hear. “Maybe one for our guest as well?” “Two hands, Pa, two hands,” she pretended to grumble, and moments later brought out the cake and three small dishes, which she left stacked on a stool before going back to the kitchen. We heard her tinker with the coffee maker then bang the residual grinds from this morning’s coffee into the sink. “Not in the sink,” he growled. “Too late,” she responded. The two of us stared at each other and smiled. I couldn’t help myself: “She loves you, doesn’t she?” “She does, yes. But she shouldn’t. I’m lucky that way. Still, I think it’s not good at her age.” “Why?” “Why? Because I think it’s going to be difficult for her. Plus it doesn’t take a genius to see I’m standing in the way.” There was nothing to say to this. We heard her placing the dirty dishes into the sink. “What were the two of you whispering about?” she said when she stepped back onto the terrace with the coffee. “Nothing,” said the father. “Don’t lie.” “We were talking about you,” I said. “I knew it. He wants grandchildren, right?” she asked. “I want you to be happy. At least happier—and with someone you love,” threw in the father. “And yes, I want grandchildren. It’s just the damned clock. Another one of those instances where life and time don’t jibe. And don’t tell me you don’t understand.” She smiled, meaning she did. “I’m knocking at death’s door, you know.” “Did they answer yet?” she asked. “Not yet. But I heard the old butler shout a drawn-out ‘Com-ing!’ and when I knocked again, he groaned, ‘I said I was coming, didn’t I?’ Before they unbolt the door to let me in, could you at least find someone you love.” “I keep telling him there is nobody, but he doesn’t believe me,” she said, turning to me, as though I were mediating their discussion. “How could there be nobody?” he replied, turning to me as well. “There is always someone. Every time I call there is someone.” “And yet it is always no one. My father doesn’t understand,” she said, sensing I was more likely going to side with her. “What these men have to offer I already have. And everything they want they don’t deserve, or I may not have in me to give. That’s the sad part.” “Strange,” I said. “Why strange?” She was sitting next to me, away from her father. “Because I am the exact opposite. I have very little that anyone might want at this point and, as for what I want, I wouldn’t even know how to spell it out. But all this you know already.” For a moment she just looked at me. “Maybe I do and maybe I don’t.” Meaning: I’m not playing your game. She knew, knew just what I was doing long before I knew I was doing it. “Maybe you do, and maybe you don’t,” mimicked her father. “You’re so good at finding paradoxes, and once you’ve fished one out from your bag of easy notions you think you’ve got your answer. But a paradox is never an answer, it’s just a fractured truth, a wisp of meaning without legs. But I am sure our guest did not come to listen to our squabbling. Forgive our father-daughter tiff.” We watched her turn the coffeepot upside down while she covered the spigot with a dish towel to prevent the coffee from spurting. Neither father nor daughter took sugar with coffee, but she suddenly realized that I might want it and, without asking me, rushed to the kitchen to bring the sugar bowl. I did not usually take sugar, but was touched by her gesture and served myself a teaspoon. Then I wondered why I’d done it when I could so easily have said no. We drank coffee quietly. After coffee I stood up: “Perhaps it’s time I headed to my hotel to review my notes for my reading this evening.” She could not resist. “Do you actually need to review your notes? Haven’t you given the same reading several times already?” “I’m always afraid I’ll lose my thread.” “I can’t picture you losing your thread, Sami.” “If you only knew what goes on in my head.” “Oh, tell us,” she bandied, not without a touch of frisky guile, which surprised me. “I was thinking of coming to your reading today—if I’m invited, that is.” “Of course you’re invited, your father too.” “Him?” she asked. “He rarely goes out.” “I do go out,” her father shot back. “How would you know what I do when you’re not here.” She did not wait to reply but went back into the kitchen and returned with a plate on which she had sliced a persimmon in four. The other two persimmons were not quite ripe yet, she said. Then she left the terrace and came back with a bowl of walnuts. Perhaps it was her way of detaining me a while longer. Her father reached for the bowl and picked one. She did too and found the nutcracker buried underneath the nuts. He did not use the nutcracker, instead cracked a walnut with his hand. “I hate when you do that,” she said. “What—this?” And he cracked another one open as well, removed its shell then handed me the edible part. I was mystified. “How did you do that?” I asked. “Simple,” he replied. “You don’t use your fist, just your index finger, which you place across the seam of both halves, like this, and with the other hand you give it a firm tap. Voilà!” he said, offering the contents to his daughter this time. “You try,” he said, handing me a new nut. And sure enough, I cracked one open just as he had done. “You live and learn.” He smiled. “I need to get back to my airplane pilot,” he added, standing up and pushing his chair back in to the table and leaving the terrace. “Bathroom,” she explained. She sprang up and went straight to the kitchen. I left my seat and followed her, not quite sure whether I was wanted there. So I stood at the entrance and watched her rinse the dishes, one by one, then stack them way too hastily next to the sink before asking me to help her stow them in the dishwasher. She filled the cast-iron frying pan with steaming-hot water and coarse salt and began to scrub it clean, scraping vigorously as if in a fit of bad temper against a piece of burned fish skin that clung to the side of the pan and wouldn’t yield to the metal scrubber. Was she upset? When it came to the crystal wine glasses, though, she was gentler, delicate, as though something about their age and rounded shape pleased and soothed her and required watchful deference. So she wasn’t angry after all. The rinsing took a few minutes. When she was done, I noticed that the palms of her hands and her fingers had turned a very deep pink, verging on purple. She had beautiful hands. She looked at me while drying them with a small kitchen towel hanging from the refrigerator door handle, the same one she had used to stop the coffee maker from sputtering. She didn’t say anything. Then she squeezed a dispenser of hand lotion by the sink and rubbed her hands with the cream. “You have nice hands.” She didn’t respond. All she said after a pause was “I have nice hands,” echoing my words either to deride them or to question my motive for saying them. “You don’t use fingernail polish,” I added. “I know.” Again, I couldn’t tell whether she was apologizing for not using polish or telling me to mind my own business. I had meant to suggest she was different from so many women her age who use all manner of color on their fingernails. But then she probably knew this, and didn’t need reminding. Lame, lame talk on my part. When she was done in the kitchen, she walked back into the dining room then headed to the living room to get our jackets. I followed her there, which was when she asked me about my reading tonight. “It’s about Photius,” I said, “an old Byzantine patriarch who kept a precious catalogue of the books he read called the Myriobiblion, meaning ‘ten thousand books.’ Without his list we’d never have known of the existence of these books—because so many of them have completely disappeared.” Was I boring her? Perhaps she wasn’t even listening to me while she riffled through some of the unopened mail sitting on the coffee table. “So this is what you put between you and life—ten thousand books?” I liked her wry humor, especially coming from someone who, despite her very palpable world-weariness on the train, might ultimately prefer cameras, motorbikes, leather jackets, windsurfing, and lean young men who make love at least three times a night. “I put so much stuff between me and life, you have no idea,” I said. “But then all this is probably over your head.” “No, it isn’t. I know some of it.” “Oh? Like what?” “Like—do you really want to know?” she asked. “Of course I want to know.” “Like I don’t think you’re a very happy man. But then you’re a bit like me: some people may be brokenhearted not because they’ve been hurt but because they’ve never found someone who mattered enough to hurt them.” Then, on second thought, maybe because she felt she had gone too far: “Call it another one of my paradoxes fished out of my overfilled bag of notions. Heartache can be contracted without symptoms. You may not even know you’re suffering from it. It reminds me of what they say about a fetus eating its own twin long before being born. There may never be a trace of the missing twin but that child will grow up feeling the absence of his sibling his entire life—the absence of love. Except for my father and what you’ve said about your son, it seems there may have been very little real love or intimacy in both our lives. But then what do I know.” She hesitated for a very short moment, and, perhaps fearing I’d start countering or taking too seriously what she’d just said, added, “I sense, though, that part of you may not like being told you’re not happy.” I attempted a polite nod that also meant I’m just going along with what you’re saying and won’t argue. “But the good part is—” she added, then caught herself once again. “The good part is?” I asked. “The good part is I don’t think you’ve closed the book or given up looking. For happiness, I mean. I like this about you.” I didn’t answer—perhaps my silence was the answer. “Right,” she blurted while handing me my jacket, which I put on. Then, abruptly changing the subject: “Your collar,” she said, indicating my jacket. It was not clear to me what she meant. “Here, let me do it,” she said, standing in front of me to straighten my collar. Without giving it another thought, I found myself holding both her hands on the lapels of my jacket against my chest. I had planned nothing of the sort but simply let myself go and touched her forehead with my palm. I’ve seldom been this impulsive and to show I didn’t mean to cross a line began buttoning my jacket. “You don’t have to go yet,” she suddenly said. “But I should. My notes, my little talk, dead old Photius, the flimsy little screens I put up between me and the real world, they’re all waiting, you know.” “This was special. For me, that is.” “This?” I asked, though I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that I knew exactly what she meant. I tried to withdraw but caressed her forehead one last time. Then kissed it. This time I stared at her, she wouldn’t look away. And in a gesture that caught me totally by surprise again and seemed to spring from who knows how many years back, I let my fingertip touch her on the chin, softly, the way a grown-up might hold a child’s chin between his thumb and forefinger to prevent it from crying, sensing all along, as she did herself, that, if she didn’t move, this caress on the chin was probably a prelude to what I did next, when I allowed my finger to travel along her lower lip—back and forth, back and forth. She did not move away but continued to stare at me. Nor could I tell whether I had offended her by touching her forehead this way, or whether, taken aback, she was still mulling over how to react. And still she continued to stare, bold and unbending. I ended up apologizing. “It’s okay,” she said, with the start of what appeared to be a suppressed giggle. She was, I was persuaded, overlooking the whole thing and being a grown-up about it. All she did in the end was to turn around sharply and, without saying anything, simply pick up her leather jacket from the sofa. Her gesture was so brusque and so resolute that I was convinced I had upset her. “I’m coming with you to the lecture hall.” This baffled me. I was sure that she wanted nothing to do with me after what I’d just done. “Now?” “Of course now.” Then, perhaps to soften her abrupt turn, she added, “Because if I don’t keep an eye on you and follow you around town I know I’ll never see you again.” “You don’t trust me.” “I’m not sure.” Then, turning to her father who was seated in the living room now: “Pa, I’m going to hear his talk.” He was surprised and probably disappointed that she was leaving so soon. “But you just got here. Weren’t you going to read to me?” “I’ll read tomorrow. Promise.” She was in the habit of reading to him from Chateaubriand’s Memoirs. He used to read Chateaubriand to her when she was in her early teens; now it was her turn, she said. “Your father isn’t very pleased,” I said as we were about to leave. She shut the French windows. The room immediately darkened, and the sudden darkness cast a gloomy air that reflected the nearing end of fall and her father’s mood. “He isn’t pleased. But it makes no difference. He pretends he’s going to work but he takes such long naps these days. In any event, when he naps I usually shop around to replenish his fridge with things he likes. I’ll do that tomorrow. The nursing service takes care of the rest. His person will come this afternoon and will also walk the dog, cook, watch TV with him, put him to bed.” * * * When we had gone downstairs and exited the building and were facing the Lungotevere she suddenly stood still and took a deep, deep breath of fresh late-October air. It surprised me. “What was that for?” I asked, obviously referring to what had sounded like a mournful sound emanating from her lungs. “Happens every time I leave. Overwhelming relief. As if I’ve been choking on bad air inside. One day, soon, I know, I’ll miss these visits. I just hope I won’t feel guilty or forget why I so badly needed to leave and shut the door behind me.” “Sometimes I wonder if my son doesn’t have the same feeling each time he leaves me.” She did not answer. She simply kept walking. “What I need is a cup of coffee.” “Didn’t you just have one?” I asked. “That was decaf,” she said. “I buy decaf coffee for him, which I let him think is regular coffee.” “Is he fooled?” “Fooled enough. Unless he goes out to get real coffee himself and doesn’t tell me. But I doubt it. As I told you, I’m here every weekend. Sometimes, when I have a free day, I’ll hop on a train and spend the night here and then head back by late morning.” “Do you like coming home?” “I used to.” And then I found myself asking something I’d never have dared ask. “Love him?” “Hard to say these days.” “Still, you’re an amazing daughter. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” She did not reply. A disabused smile that seemed to say You don’t know the half of it hovered over her features. “I think the love I once had has run its course. What remains is just placebo love, easy to mistake for real love. Aging, sickness, maybe the start of dementia will do this. Taking care of him and worrying for him and calling him all the time when I’m away to make sure he lacks for nothing—all these have worn out everything I had in me to give. You wouldn’t call this love. No one would. He wouldn’t.” Then, as she’d already done before, she cut herself short: “Girl needs coffee!” Suddenly, she picked up her pace. “I know a nice place nearby.” As we were headed to her café, I asked if she minded making a very short stop across the bridge. “I want to take you somewhere.” She did not ask why or where but simply followed. “Are you sure you have time? You need to drop your bag, wash your hands, review your notes, who knows what else,” she said with a perceptible snicker in her voice. “I have time. Maybe I was exaggerating before.” “You don’t say! I knew you were a fibber.” We laughed. Then, out of the blue: “He is very sick, you know. And the worst is, he knows it, even if he doesn’t want to talk about it. I still can’t tell whether it’s because he’s too scared to bring it up or just trying not to scare me. We both allege it’s to protect the other, but I think we haven’t found a way to talk about it and prefer to postpone confronting it until it may be too late. So we keep it very light, and joke about it. ‘Did you bring the cake?’ ‘I brought the cake.’ ‘Some more wine for me?’ ‘Yes, but only a drop more, Pa.’ In a short while he won’t be able to breathe, so if the cancer doesn’t kill him, pneumonia will. To say nothing of the morphine he’s started taking and which eventually causes other problems we don’t need to talk about. I may have to move in with him if none of my siblings will. We all say we’ll take turns, but who knows what excuses each will find when the time comes.” On our way we took a slight detour and stopped at my hotel. I said I was going in to drop my bag at the desk. The attendant, who was watching television, said he would have one of the bellhops bring it up to my room. Miranda didn’t enter the lobby but took a peek at the little chapel inside the hotel. When I came out I saw her using the toe of her boot to fiddle with a loose cobblestone that seemed to interest her. “Two minutes and you’ll see what I meant to show you,” I said, sensing her edginess. I wanted to say something about her father, or at least close the subject with a few comforting words. But I couldn’t think of a thing that wasn’t a platitude and was glad she had dropped the subject. “This better be worth it,” she said. “It is to me.” Within a few minutes we approached a building on the corner of the street. I stopped in front of it and stood quiet. “Don’t tell me—vigil!” She remembered. “Where?” she asked. “Upstairs. Third floor, large windows.” “Happy memories?” “Not especially. I just lived here.” “And?” “If I come back to my hotel each time I’m in Rome it’s because it’s just a few steps away from this building,” I said, pointing to the windows upstairs that clearly hadn’t been cleaned or replaced in decades. “I love to hover here. Then it’s as if I’m still upstairs, still reading Ancient Greek, still grading student papers. I learned to cook in this building. I even learned to sew buttons here. Learned to make my own yogurt, my own bread. Learned the I-Ching. Had my first pet because the old French lady downstairs didn’t want her cat any longer, and the cat liked me. I envy that young man living upstairs, though he wasn’t very happy here. I like to come back later in the evening when it grows dark to watch the apartment. Then if a light goes on at my old windows, my heart just bursts.” “Why?” “Because part of me probably hasn’t given up wanting to turn back the clock. Or hasn’t quite accepted that I’ve moved on—if indeed I did move on. Perhaps all I truly want is to reconnect with the person I used to be and lost track of and simply turned my back on once I moved elsewhere. I may never want to be who I was in those days, but I do want to see him again, just for a minute or so to find out who this person is who hasn’t even left the wife he hasn’t met yet, and who is still so far from knowing he’ll be a father someday. The young man upstairs knows nothing of this, and part of me wants to bring him up-to-date and let him know I’m still alive, that I haven’t changed, and that I’m standing outside here right now—” “—with me,” she interrupted. “Maybe we can go upstairs and say hello. I’m dying to meet him.” I couldn’t tell whether she was taking the joke to the next level or being oddly serious. “I’m sure he would have loved nothing more than to open the door and see you waiting on the landing,” I said. “Would you have let me in?” she asked. “You know the answer!” She waited for me to add something, perhaps to clarify my meaning. But I didn’t. “Thought so.” “Would you have come in?” I finally asked. She thought for a second. “No,” she replied. “Why not?” “I like the older you better.” A sudden silence fell between us. “Better answer?” she asked, ribbing my arm in a gesture that could easily have meant that even in jest there was earnest and trusting fellowship between us. “I am much older than you, Miranda,” I said. “Age is what it is. Cool?” she replied almost before I’d finished uttering my sentence. “Cool.” I smiled. I’d never used the word this way before. “So, have you ever stepped inside the building or gone upstairs?” She was changing the subject. Figures, I thought. “No, never.” “Why not?” “I don’t know.” “Did Miss Margutta hurt you that badly?” “I don’t think so. The building has very little to do with her. Other girls came here, though.” “Did you like them?” “I liked them well enough. I remember one day in particular when I had the flu and had canceled all my classes and lessons. It was one of my happiest days here. I had a fever and no food at home. A girl who was my student heard I was sick and brought me three oranges, stayed awhile, ended up making out with me, then left. A short while later another girl brought me chicken soup, a third dropped by and made hot toddies with so much brandy for the three of us that I think I was the happiest man with a fever. One of those two ended up living with me for a while.” “And yet, right now, I’m the one standing with you here. Did that occur to you?” There was something unusually pinched in her voice, and I couldn’t tell why. I thought I was confiding my past, the way we’d been doing since riding the train together. Then I gave a light chuckle that I could tell sounded slightly forced. “What’s so funny?” “It’s not funny, it’s just that you weren’t even born when I used to live here.” Neither of us asked why the matter had come up. She took out a small camera from her bag. “I’m going to ask these people to take a picture of the two of us, so you’ll know I existed and wasn’t reduced to a fleeting memory like that girl with three oranges whose first, last, and middle name you can’t for the life of you remember now.” Was all this a frenzy of female vanity? She wasn’t the type. She stopped a couple of American tourists coming out of a store and, handing one of them her camera, asked the blond girl to take a picture of us in front of the building. “Not like this,” she said. “Put your arm around me. And give me your other hand. It won’t kill you.” She asked the girl to take another picture for good measure. After watching the girl snap a few more times, she thanked her and retrieved her camera. “I’ll send you the photos soon enough so you won’t forget Miranda. Promise?” I promised. “Does Miranda care that much?” “You still don’t understand, do you? When was the last time you were with a girl my age who’s not exactly ugly and who is desperately trying to tell you something that should have been quite obvious by now?” I had suspected she was about to say something like this, so why did it give me a start and make me hope I’d misread her? Say it plainly, Miranda, or say it again. Wasn’t that plain enough? Then say it again. The words we’d spoken were sufficiently vague for us not to know what the other meant or what we ourselves meant, yet we both immediately sensed, without knowing why, that we’d seized the other’s underlying meaning precisely because it wasn’t spoken. Right then I had a splendid idea. I took out my cell phone and asked if she had anything to do for the next two to three hours. “I’m free,” she replied, “but don’t you have things to do, notes to go over, clothes to hang up, to say nothing of those hands you needed to wash?” I didn’t have time to explain and right away called a friend who was a well-known archaeologist in Rome. When he picked up, I said, “I need a favor, and I need it today.” “I’m very well, and thank you for asking,” he replied with his usual humor. “So how can I help?” “I need permission for two to visit Villa Albani.” He hesitated a moment. “Is she beautiful?” he asked. “Totally.” “I’ve never been inside Villa Albani,” she said. “They never let anyone in.” “You’ll see.” Then, as I waited for his call back: “Cardinal Albani built his villa in the eighteenth century and amassed a huge collection of Roman statues under the care of Winckelmann, and I want you to see them.” “Why?” “Well, you fed me fish and walnuts, and you love statues, so I’ll show you the most beautiful bas-relief you’ll see in your life. It’s of Antinoüs, Emperor Hadrian’s lover. Then I’ll show you my favorite—a statue of Apollo killing a lizard, attributed to Praxiteles, possibly the greatest sculptor of all time.” “And my cup of coffee?” “We have plenty of time.” My phone rang. Could we be at the villa within the hour? The visit would last no longer than an hour because the custodian needed to leave early. “It’s Friday,” explained my friend. We found a cab waiting right off the bridge and in seconds were racing to the villa. In the cab she turned to me. “What made you want to do this?” “My way of showing that I am happy I listened to you.” “Despite your grumbling?” “Despite my grumbling.” She said nothing, looked out for a short moment, then turned back to me. “You surprise me.” “Why?” “I didn’t expect you to be the kind who jumps on impulse from one thing to the next.” “Why?” “Because there’s something so thoughtful, calming, even-tempered about you.” “You mean dull.” “Not at all. People trust you and want to open up to you, maybe because they like who they are when they’re with you—like right now in this cab.” I reached out, held her hand, then let it go. We arrived in less than twenty minutes. The custodian had been warned of our arrival and was waiting outside the small gate with his arms crossed, almost peremptory and hostile. He eventually recognized me and his attitude, mistrusting at first, changed to one of guarded respect. We entered the villa itself and headed upstairs and proceeded through a series of chambers until we stood facing the statue of Apollo. “It’s called the Sauroktonos, killer of snakes. We’ll walk through the gallery and, if there’s time, see the Etruscan panels.” She stared at it, said she was sure she’d seen a copy of the statue before, but not that one. We rushed through the rest until we got to the Antinoüs. She couldn’t have been more struck by its beauty. “It’s amazing.” “What did I tell you?” “Sono senza parole,” she said. I’m without words right now. Both of us were. She put her arm around me, stared for a while, then rubbed my back once. Then we moved away. A short while later I turned to her and, pointing to a small bust of a hunchback, whispered in her ear that she could sneak a few pictures with her tiny camera if I managed to distract the guard, as no one was allowed to take photos. I remembered that he’d once opened up to me about his sick mother, so taking him aside, I asked how his mother had handled her operation. The question was meant to suggest delicatezza as I was asking it sotto voce allegedly so Miranda wouldn’t hear. He appreciated my discretion and explained that purtroppo era mancata. I gave him my sympathies and to detain him a while longer and make certain that his back was turned to Miranda, explained that my mother too had died. “We’re given one only,” he said. We nodded and commiserated. Back to the Sauroktonos for one last look, I explained that the same statue was in the Louvre and in the Vatican Museums, but this and the one in Cleveland were the only ones in bronze. “But this one is not life-size,” said the guard. “Cleveland’s, I’m told, is more beautiful.” “It is,” I said. Then he encouraged us to walk through the Italian garden that led to another gallery filled with statues. At one point in the garden, we turned around to take in the façade and magnificent arcade of the large neoclassical palazzo, once deemed the most beautiful of its day. “I think we won’t have time to see the Etruscan panels,” he added, “but in compenso maybe the signorina might wish to take a few pictures of these statues, seeing,” he added with a mischievous, smug smile, “she likes taking pictures.” We all smiled at one another. He led us through the garden then to the exit gates, pointing to what he claimed were the seven oldest pine trees in Rome. As he pressed the button to open the electric gate, an elderly gentleman standing on the sidewalk stared at us and couldn’t help saying to the guard, “My family has lived in Rome for seven generations, yet never once has any of us been allowed into this villa.” The guard put on his peremptory gaze again and told him it was vietato, forbidden, to let anyone in. The gate closed behind us. Before hailing a cab, she said she wanted to take another picture of me by the gate. “Why?” I asked. “No reason.” Then, seeing I looked mopey, “Could you kill that frown?” she said. But then, reacting to my smile: “And not a fake Hollywood smile—please!” She snapped a few photos. But she wasn’t happy. “Why did you frown?” I didn’t know why I had, I said. But I did know. “Yet this morning you’re the one who accused me of being glum!” We laughed. She did not seem to expect a comment from me. Nor did I push her to explain. But as she kept clicking away, a troubling awareness began to creep up on me: someday, this would be a vigil too and it would be called Kill the frown! There was something warm, lambent, and intimate each time she elbowed me this way. She reminded me of someone who storms into your life, just as she’d done in her father’s living room, and right away fluffs your pillows, tears open the windows, straightens two old paintings you’ve stopped seeing though they’d never budged from your mantelpiece for years, and with a deft foot flattens the ripples on an ancient rug, only to remind you, once she’s added flowers to a vase that’s been standing empty for ever so long that, in case you were still struggling to downplay her presence, you wouldn’t dare ask for more than a week, a day, an hour of this. How close had I come to someone so real, I thought. How close. Was it too late? Am I too late? “Stop thinking,” she said. I reached out and held her hand. * * * In the swanky, crowded Caffè Trilussa that she liked we found a small, rickety square table and sat facing each other. Behind her stood one of those outdoor heaters going full blast. She liked the heat, she said, adding how strange it was that just a few hours earlier it had been warm enough to eat on her father’s terrace. Now she wanted something warm to drink. When the waiter came, she ordered two double Americanos. What’s an Americano, I was going to ask, but caught myself and decided not to. It took me a few moments to realize why I hadn’t asked. “An Americano is when they add hot water to a cup of espresso. A double Americano is hot water and two shots of espresso.” She lowered her gaze and looked down at the table trying to stifle a smile. “How could you tell I didn’t know what an Americano was?” “I just knew.” “I just knew,” I repeated. I loved this. I think we both did. “Is it because your father wouldn’t know, so you figured I wouldn’t either?” “Wrong!” she said, immediately guessing why I’d asked. “That’s not why at all, mister. I already told you.” “Then why?” Suddenly, the jeering smile vanished from her face. “I know you, Sami, that’s why. I look at you now, and it’s as if I’ve known you forever. And here’s one more thing, since we’re on the subject and I’m the one doing all the talking.” Where was she headed with this? “I don’t want to stop knowing you. So there’s the long and the short of it.” I looked at her once again, still uncertain what all this added up to. Just don’t make me hope, Miranda, don’t. I didn’t even want to raise the subject with her because that would be hoping too. The waiter brought us two cups. “An Americano,” she said, adopting the playful tone of moments before, “is for people who want an espresso but like American coffee. Or it’s for people who just want an espresso that lasts a long time—” “Go back to what you were saying before,” I interrupted. “What was I saying?” She was teasing. “That I’ve known you forever? Or that I don’t want to stop knowing you? The two go together.” When had all of this happened? In the train, in the taxi, in her father’s apartment, the kitchen, the living room, outside Villa Albani, when we spoke of Miss Margutta, or passed by my old home? Why did I feel she kept throwing me off course when part of me knew she wasn’t doing it at all? She must have known what I felt; it should have been clear from the very start to a child of six. But in Miranda, when? A few whimsical minutes ago that could so easily wilt no sooner than I’d mistake them for real? And then the thought struck again. Years ago, in a building not three blocks from here, I was reading Byzantine scholiasts, lost in the world of pre-Islamic Constantinople, yet the sperm cell from her pa’s gonads that would become Miranda hadn’t even been released. I stared at her. She gave a forced, diffident smile that didn’t sit with the jaunty, willful, unbending girl who knew all about Americanos. I could have asked her, What’s the matter? But I resisted. All she did at the end of an uncomfortable pause when neither of us said anything was to shake her head slightly, as though disagreeing with herself and dismissing a silly notion that she knew better than to confide. I’d already seen her do this the m