In this one you’re smiling – almost smirking, saluting me (the photographer) with your expresso cup. You were happy that day in Sardinia. We wandered through the ancient city. Movement helped dissipate the tension between us. The sight of ruined walls – fragments of Carthage – distracted you.
You picked up a piece of stone that had crumbled from the fortification, tested its weight in your hand, scrutinized its texture between your fingers, then popped it into your bag as a souvenir. I remember thinking that when we get back to our hotel you will label it, record the time, date and place you discovered it, then you will include it as a Carthaginian specimen to add to your Greek and Roman artifacts collected in Sicily. You think quantitatively. You take comfort in what you can measure, what you are certain can be known.
We unexpectedly came upon an open-air market. People were crying out their wares – necklaces of local stone, hand-crocheted bed covers and table runners. All lovely. I wanted one, but you turned away to talk to a dealer in cutting implements. Your Italian had improved and he knew some English, so you both enjoyed yourselves. You ended up with a very functional pocket knife.
The effort tired you, so we sat at an outdoor café for an expresso. You looked so pleased with yourself and even with me that I took up the camera and snapped your photo.
“It’s rarely like this nowadays,” I thought. “I want to remember this moment.”
You caught my desire and toasted me with your expresso. I started to remind you that it is contrary to custom in Italy to make a toast with a non-alcoholic beverage, but then I remembered you had ordered a shot of Sambuca and added it to your expresso.
I want to remember that day, that desire, that comradrie. Memory is so devious, though. It shifts with desire so that what I recall may not be true. Memory may make a liar of me.
There was hardly ever a variation in the tide at Palinura where you had a summer home on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The water was a constantly clear aquamarine. We swam every day from June to October. It seems that we were lovers for a long time. Your house was on a hill rising off the beach, so it was safe from the high waves brought by the rains of November.
You brought me there in May, at the end of the academic year. We stayed until September. Then we went every weekend until the rains came. See, I do remember.
I remember Palinura through its scents. As we would descend the mountain, just before coming up against the blazing white stucco wall that surrounded your house, I could smell the sea. It never gave off that fishy aroma of spent love that the Atlantic (where I grew up) offers at low tide. Nor is it brutal, as the Atlantic can be. The Tyrrhenian Sea is always calm, concealing its promised caresses.
You fascinated me. You were gentle and somewhat of a mystery. Too good to be true and you know the common wisdom of that saying. For my part, I was at my most beautiful from the time I was twenty-eight, until I was thirty-five. My seven years of good luck.
Every May we would open the house in Palinura by placing pots of rosemary along the terrace. When the wind blew in from the sea, the house would vibrate with an herbal and salty smell. Next came the oleander and we would awake to splashes of bright pink and violet. You always made coffee first thing in the morning. The aroma of freshly brewed expresso and steaming milk mingled with that of salt air and rosemary is to me the most exotic of smells.
Another piece of conventional wisdom: nothing lasts forever. The perfume of Palinura would change toward the end of October. The rosemary would wither and lose its fragrance. The sea breeze would blow cold and cause the oleander to pull into itself, hiding its vivid blossoms.
One October you grew tired of me. You kept it to yourself until after Christmas. What a lovely gift! Had you thought you could spare me a lonely holiday? In January you told me you had found someone else. I wasn’t surprised. You had been distant that last summer and your smell – your personal odor that only I could sense – had changed. It was no longer like pure dry red wine, but now had a lingering bitter undertone.
I miss the smells of summer – the salty air, wafting rosemary, our excited perspiring bodies, fresh coffee afterward. I live with sterility now. My sheets smell of laundry detergent, my apartment of furniture polish. I have a cat, but it is an odorless animal and I clean the litter twice a day.
I still wonder what turned you away from me. Perhaps you were merely bored? I should now hate the smell of coffee because it always brings to mind the image of you carrying a tray of expresso to the bedroom. I can’t somehow obliterate this happy memory that invades me every time I pass a café.
On the last day of your life you invited me for coffee. You had seemed to perk up and I had hopes that you had begun to recover. I thought the warm May breeze to be restorative and that you were getting ready to emerge from your winter lair.
Living in Atrani is difficult in the harsh rainy weather that plagues the Amalfi Coast from November through April. I didn’t blame you for not wanting to see anyone – for not wanting to see me. You had Maria to clean and cook. You had your records, still preferring vinyl to cd’s or even cassettes. What were you reading now? Oh! All the Russian novels! These resonated with your wintery fatalistic mood that you had not yet shed, although the air was mild and bright red flowers covered your terrace.
Now that the weather was warm and dry I climbed the 50 or so steps from the coastal road in Amalfi and walked the mile or so of tunnel that led into Atrani. Then up up up the side of the mountain I went until I reached your terrace and your little white square stucco house at the far end.
You had Maria serve us expresso and lemon torte on the terrace where we could watch the turquoise sea. You played Largo al Factotum on your old record player. You offered to be my factotum – something you would not have done in the old days – and we danced a jig to the repetitions of “di qualitá …di qualitá…di qualitá,”, the repetitions of the lyric hinting at a corresponding reprise of our present and past mirth.
We talked until the sky turned from a cloudless bright blue to luminescent rose. What was the saying about a “red sky at night brings delight?” Then it gradually faded to violet that merged with the indigo of the evening sea. We talked – and this had never been our custom – about the past and why we couldn’t stay together. I left.
The next afternoon Maria called to say that you had died during the night. Of heart failure. Your heart had failed to hold me. But I am grateful for that last day. Turquoise, rose, and violet will always by my colors of joy.