She says she likes Billy Wilder. This is later in the night, with the overhead lights turned off and my roommate feigning sleep in the corner. We are in a train headed to Venice. Five hours to go. The Apartment and Double Indemnity are her favorites. I whisper in agreement.
The beginning. She enters the train cabin at Naples. My Venetian roommate is the friendly one, extracting the relevant information: She’s an Italian artist fresh from scouting her latest exhibition site. A castle. I smile and nod, wondering if I should’ve shaved.
The nodding turns to speaking, as I gush about a video I saw at the Biennale. She agrees. Or seems to. We say plenty of things, about the obsolescence of the Guerrilla Girls and the merits of a local music festival. But really we are looking. Sheepish glances turning into lingering stares. The warm glow of reciprocation.
All of a sudden it is dark, except for the moonlight. Which is true. We murmur nonsense until our faces breathe each other. A kiss is inevitable. Preordained. So it happens. It is inexplicably tender, the kiss. Streetlights pass and we see. Whisper our last names and hometowns and ages. My Buffalo sounding grubby next to her Verona. Chicken wings and Shakespeare. I admire her hair in the light, speckled with gray. I disbelieve and then believe the fact of her.
The night ends.The ride ends. So the dream, assuredly, will end. We exchange contact information. My plane is scheduled to leave the next morning. On a card she writes her e-mail address, her phone number, and her work schedule for the day.
We part. I beam. The roommate and I are locked out of the apartment so we stand and look at the mist roll off the canal. And I gush. We are still idealized lovers on a train, bereft of history, vices, insecurities. It could have ended here. As a fantasy. Gather around the bar and listen to my own Before Sunrise tale, far less talky but comparably attractive (so I’d say). I could even spin a sequel, less Before Sunset than Strangers on a Train, set in Binghamton (my alma mater), self-proclaimed carousel capital of the U.S., where I’d bowl instead of play tennis. Or not. Stories are hard to come by but I figure love is more so. Lust and hope drive me forward.
So I go to her—working at the Thai pavilion of the Biennale. Or, I wait for her. I arrive and it is shuttered for lunch. I wander in a nearby church and calm my racing nerves in front of a Bellini until it is time. The practical uses of art.
I arrive, see her, and lay out my grand plan. I tell her I have a ridiculous proposition and that she should feel free to reject it out of hand. Pause. Then I say I wish to spend my last night in Venice with her, and that we’d somehow have to get to the airport early the next morning if she agrees. I, not nearly as nervous as I should be, wait. She quickly grins and says yes. A wall of video projections vibrates in the background, a woman lecturing to a rapt group of corpses in a classroom (Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s Death Seminar). I enjoy it.
She has to work another job, so after leaving the pavilion, we go to her apartment for a break, where I drop my bag. She tries to nap on the couch as I stare out the window, then at her, worrying that her roommates will arrive and wonder who the hell I am.
Woozily she wakes up as the Giant Sand album she put on the stereo winds down.
I quietly celebrate the conclusion of its monotonous monotone. She smirks at my displeasure. Cute. We catch a water taxi, take a photo, approach the purse store. Kiss, bye, and I have a few hours to wander. There is the dark, the tourists, and the moon in the canal. I stand on the Accademia bridge, staring at the sky while eavesdropping on the conversation of a British family. An argument ensues about the right settings to use on a digital camera.
The father has his doubts about the son. I think it better just to look. But a picture, now, would be nice.
Back to the store at the appointed time, I handle various leather pouches as she counts up the day’s take.
I wonder if I should smile at her, but I don’t want to distract her at her work, or embarrass her in front of her boss, so I turn back to the wallets.
Back at her place, I meet a roommate, refuse some tea, watch the beginning of The Five Obstructions. Turn in.
She takes me to the airport: on taxi, on bus. The trip is one long embrace as my self-consciousness quietly slips away. Drink cappuccino, embrace.
At gate, embrace. She kisses the sleeve of my jacket. Wave, wave, wave. The truth in clichés. As if on a cloud.
Once we part, the reality descends—we know little, if anything, of each other—only the comfort we feel in each other’s presence.
Presence we no longer have. Talk is mostly over e-mail, detailing the mundane and necessary details of our lives. We exchange our shock at what happened, whether it was a result of atmosphere and circumstance or human feeling.
It’s determined probably a mixture of both. In what ratio is yet to be known.
She promises to visit. We watch In the Mood for Love at the same time across the ocean. Flight continually delayed until I believe she came to her senses, understood the futility of pursuing a relationship across continents based on a two-day swoon. But then. But then she books a flight, as if on impulse. Gives me a week’s notice.
She stays for three.
Meeting her at JFK is surreal. She dyed her hair. I shaved. The thought races through both of our minds (later confirmed by her) that we might completely annoy each other. I am awkward, scrambling for things to say, trying to force the unspoken ease of Venice.
A few nights later we act like a couple. Out of nowhere. World of private jokes and asides, comfortable silences, honesty like breathing. She admits she came for the city as much as for me—to see friends and visit galleries. Bets were hedged. Her pragmatism makes me admire her more. She cancels plans, I teach her how to make French toast.
Smiles burst out at a glance as we put down stakes on each other’s terrain. I expose my vices and vice versa: I love football (real and fantasy), am incapable of cooking a decent meal, and prefer irony to expressing emotion. She exposes occasional insecurities, about her English (it’s fabulous), and her future (it’s bright).
The rest is storybook: a deserted Brighton Beach as the sun sets. Heads on shoulders. Birds skitter as a father chases his wife and child with a prehistoric carcass. It’s funny. Performance artist strips naked at Chelsea gallery.
Man takes snapshots, crowd titters. Lou Reed mumbles some lyrics by the Hudson. I define words from a Jonathan Lethem short story. She has trouble with “boner.”
Then she was gone: on subway, on plane. We feel too good to dread the future, and idiot that I am, when we declare our sublime folly will continue, I believe it.
We vow to be strong.
Phone calls are rampant, e-mails tender, longing at a peak. And she sends postcards. She discovered love letters her father sent her mother when he was in the military. She took the image from a postcard and affixed it to a blank one, marking our tale over the memory of theirs.
We spoke today as I had a No. 1 from Wendy’s. She was at a wine bar in Venice.
Different strokes. But I fattened my phone bill as we talked of our plans for my visit in February. I’m going for two weeks, one of which will be spent in Paris. One doesn’t know where we will end up after it ends, but I do know this:
We will feel joy in those weeks, so fuck the rest of it. We’re in love.
R. Emmet Sweeney will do anything for love, even that.