Note: a picaresque is a loose, episodic mode of fiction, often following a rambling, uncertain protagonist. The first part appears here.
Witness the sail on pleasure boat incline towards the sea, as if to kiss it; those aboard the vessel cling to the ropes and tethers. Some unearthly presence must be assisting matters, for the wind quickens, the speed increases, and the sail, nearer still to the slate sea that cannot reflect, descends no further; its pitch of desire reaching perfect proximity—near enough from wave to sustain tantalizing hope, far enough for hope to tantalize—, it is held in the rush of air filling the void beneath it, as other air passes unperturbed along its upper surface. Those on board have found time to readjust themselves, have fashioned seats from hammocks, and when the vessel lifts, swinging dripping into the air, they can almost relax, and some even sleep.
The freeze of Ambien shattered with the clanging tray of the attendant, who brusquely thrust a coffee before me. Not even a half-night’s sleep, and a somnambulant, artificial routine of meals, tickets, and transit until the evening bed found me softened to gruel.
Another Island. Breakfast.
I hate, in conversation, repeating myself. Inevitably, it means recognizing the inanity of what I have said. But when the waiter—Spanish? Italian? Portuguese?—asked again for my order, I was on surer ground. Besides, my mood soared.
The day before I had walked between buttery limestone buildings and felt decidedly quaint myself, happily touristic, eager to take in the sights as sights, pure and simple: something to be looked at, seen, mulled only briefly, put away for recollection later, perhaps over meandering dinnertime conversation with Art or Charlie. Contentedly, I realize that my sane middle-ground to the wanderlust of the former and reactionary vitriol of the latter lay in accepting a perfectly valuable function of traveling: adding an adhesive ingredient to the social glue back home. We speak about trips and are heard and, provided our anecdotes remain decently brief, we satisfy our listeners by the mere fact of grazing their own desire to be elsewhere, and by providing their imaginations with a small circuit of locale, personage, event whereon to take a leisurely stroll away from the place of the present.
And later, in conversation with ourselves, we can do the same. Hence: the buttery stone facades, some polished, other stripped of decoration and proven all the sturdier for maintaining a wholesome coloring; the green pool broken by occasional bubbles, as it has been for thousands of years; the vaulting in the Abbey, scalloped intricately; the pub, standing 300 years, decorated and fixed from 1932, a time before Ikea, before light-colored wood paneling had lost its ability to impress and console; the jazz band, two drum-sets, two saxophones, keyboards, and a xylophone array, played by and playing for the local representatives of bohemian life, bourgeois and otherwise, young and old; that waiter at breakfast, so eager to play his Mediterranean role on a stage, despite the precedent of Fawlty Towers, ill-decorated for the part, to an audience unsure of how to respond except with matching national gaieties.
And the memories that I will not recall lightly over dinner, or elsewhere. Perhaps not with friends at all (with anonymous strangers, in writing, however…). As I settled into the rasher of bacon, ploughing it through the runny egg, I looked up and saw her.
In the nearness of the best companionship, a silence need not be a bother–and when there is a compulsion to fill it, when there is nothing particular to say, the phrase “I love you” suits any circumstance, meager or expansive, without feeling idle or inadequate. It is one of the miracles of language. In negotiation, that worldliest of pursuits, that ideal phrase is entirely out of place, and the circumstance of companionship is always the same: a conversation that must be possessed by words if the opponent is to be dominated, the end achieved. In negotiation “la parole est le pouvoir” a silver-tongued Gallic coworker of mine reminds us, without pausing for a reply.
On vacation alone, in the presence of one’s own thoughts, there is no recourse to either: the one is narcissism and the other insanity. The best thing to do is, sometimes, to leave the thoughts behind, to enter into exile from one’s own mind and self; liberating at first, but soon lonely. Even the tussle of negotiation feels welcome, especially when the stomach rumbles and feet ache.
At breakfast that morning there was neither rumbling nor aching, but there was the expectation and memory of both, and a shadow of longing for real conversation too. When I saw her, then, I knew what I must do.
Balancing cutlery across the sides of by plate, and managing my water glass in hands united beneath, I left only my coffee saucer for my second trip; my first approach would make me too awkward for her to refuse, and my second approach, latte in hand, would permit me a pose too debonair for her to regret not refusing.
She had not been on the team responsible for negotiations over Spanish Ham that week in March, now so long ago, but she had been in the entourage of negotiators descending on our offices for that week. Even the buildings formidable powers of personal erasure could not obliterate her image in my mind. She was responsible, I believe, for the Olive Oil negotiations, Italian and Greek varieties. And she had captivated me by the gracious humor she had brought to the resounding victory she achieved over my hapless frenemy Phil.
I had not fallen in love with her for that, but I had known I could fall in love with her for the qualities it augured and attracted.
Sitting with her, though, there was no thought of confessing to any feelings, but only the anxiety at how I would discern the nature of the relationship I had willed into being: neither negotiation nor love, nor the balance of the two, colloquially called friendship. Of course, she, by all signs on vacation herself, might remember none of what had and had not passed, and may not even have considered it worth making the effort to remember. She looked at me, and I at least gained confidence that she knew where we had met.
“The price for Ham was set too high,” she spoke, with an intimate iciness in her voice. This was an unexpected thrill: the old game of negotiation entailing the losses of March was still afoot and the chance for compensation and redemption was real. She had realized what I, benighted still, had been asking by imposing on her as I did.
It was a photograph that I might look at years later, only to think, “how young I was then.” But I never looked that young, really. The lighting helped, purified and reflected by the creamy stone, and most of all she did, standing a foot away from me, making room for a glimpse of the green bath between us, as if that attempt at historical memory would be worth our recalling. Of course, I knew at once, looking at the screen, that it was all wrong: my youth, the familiarity in our stance, the homage to the past. Of course, she knew the same.
It provided, graciously, a starting point when we sat for tea. She had seen, she said, a painting, or was it a photograph, by David Hockney, in which a woman served the artist tea; he sat on a rust bedspread in a dingy British hotel of the early 1980s. You might (she laughed) have smelled the smoky furniture through the picture’s tepia tones. Dated as it was by the furniture alone, little had to be said for the shirt on the artist, low around the neck, tight around the arms, thin around the belly; he might have been waiting for a casual one-night stand to make her way from the bathroom. But, she rhapsodized now, what was remarkable was the tea: the woman’s gesture of dunking and lifting, caught mid-motion, the slightly chipped cheap white porcelain tea-cup—there may have been rosettes around the sides—drew the entire image out of that time. For as long as there were tea-bags, the same motion, more or less, the same positioning of the cup, the same uncertain judgment of how strong the tea should be, would persist; and even before tea had been neatly packaged in bags, much of the act would have been recognizable if not identical. That was the picture’s bid to persevere.
I had never thought of it before. Some think, seeing one of the works of Vermeer or Pieter de Hooch, that the ambivalence of human relations, the eroticism of secrecy and the secrets of deeper feelings still cloaked by the erotic, are what persevere, drawing our attention again and again. But it is nothing so nebulous, nothing so immaterial to the world of the paint, that anchors the painting beyond a given time. Instead, it is the fact of table, chair, earring, paper, or shoe that continually catches the eye that day in, day out sees the same things, regarding them with mild anxiety or slight urgency; they make the humans relatable. Without them, the figures, whatever their supposed verisimilitude, would be little more to us than the figures on a Grecian Urn. But even those black curved forms, when we see one black against red, comes to life when it holds some tool or toy or object we recognize as our own. It is not essentially human to possess property, but the possession of property may be the most mundane attempt humans make at possessing themselves.
The photograph could be both of ours, or neither of ours, and, as such, neither of us felt much affirmed by it.
As we removed the tea from our cups, our conversation shifted. She was moved, and moving, to gratify. Since the breakfast’s salvo there had been no talk of ham or dry goods of any sort. I had dexterously asked if she liked milk in her coffee and finding she did, proceeded to hold forth a cup along with my plans for the morning. Now, those completed, her years of experience, the intelligence cultivated by necessity and choice, and the instinct for knowing others, bore her along to find, beneath a dusty table, what she needed to resume.
I had not played Scrabble since my time at university, when I visited my friend’s family in their rickety house, and, beneath lamps that I suspected to be kerosene, we passed an evening in disputes over the lexical value of glottal grunts.
It proved immensely more frustrating on this occasion. So little can be said with a Scrabble board. It is even less communicative than Ouija, for although the dead are irretrievable and silent, the shared touch on the board in the present is sometimes enough to harmonize the imaginations of the players, such that, without being certain, they suspect they no longer need speech. Scrabble is entirely otherwise; it is a perpetual reminder that language and speech are always feats of bricolage. Each word is a new collage and it is the nature of a collage to be without grammar: that is, a collage flaunts its breaks, disparate origins, and reoriented ends, all of which grammar, visual and spoken, would efface, deny, or disguise.
What was worse was that I felt she was succeeding where I was failing. With single words, composed of letters gathered by chance—though the careful click of the tiles as she let them drop from her hand in the bag, as if her thinly fleshed fingers felt the letters press on them, and knew already what they wanted her to say—she transported me to a realm of curiosity as only true communication can. The words themselves perhaps matter less than their timing, their angle on the board, the expression on her face when she set them down. But their manner of construction left me in little doubt that she intended to draw me in.
I no longer know when curiosity about another person is sexual; I do not mean physical. That is clear enough: but it is so difficult to know when what one is curious about is threaded through by a curiosity about the other person’s desires, a curiosity that is perhaps inevitably explored through reflection on whether they are desirable. And that, when the physical appeal is present, when the person is already at work on one’s instincts and senses, is enough. The result was further debilitation, since the game offered no opportunity for shared touch.
My words on the board, savage and whimpering, eventually moved her to pity.
“How about,” she proposed, “we twist the game?”
My head lifted from its grieved tilt.
“Either you can receive one of my tiles, chosen by you at random, on the condition that you allow me to choose, at random, one of yours; or else you can ask for three letters you would like and I have one of them, I will give you that one for three of yours, chosen at random, in return.”
I saw her ploy, to return me to myself: three, chosen at random, was far too many. A counter-offer was required.
“If I ask for three letters, and you have one, I will choose between two tiles that you pick; only one will be the letter I’d like. You can choose two, at random, in return.”
“I will pick three tiles. You can choose at random between those,” she countered. “If I have more than one of the letters you ask for, I will decide which to offer.”
At which point, I settled, and naturally, asked for a “t,” and “h,” and an “e.” The choice of three letters felt as significant as the odds of receiving any one, or even the uses to which I might put them; here was a chance at telling her what I needed from her. I trusted she would understand. The definite article picked out, clutched hold of something. What, I would let her decide.
In her kindness, her wisdom for me even, she had given me gifts so: the negotiation and the chance to spell a word of my choosing from the abundance of twenty-six letters.
Evening settled. I ordered a bottle of house wine, and the café’s speakers played a folk-rock song from the 70s.
Returning to my room, mid-afternoon the next day, I collapsed on the bed, sure that only a few days remained in March, only a few days before April’s shrill rains and brilliantly temperate days would carry me away into fresher spirits. It took me moments to recover myself in time, to remember that the year had already found summer, and that I was without set plan.
I was in no place to fathom why she had departed abruptly, without announcement; it was chance that had she woke me from my light sleep on the sofa in the corner of her room where, glass of wine half full, I had fallen asleep perambulating amidst my overgrown doubts.
By the time I saw what was happening, that it was her suitcase’s shape that was disappeared behind through the door behind her, it was too late to call out to any good end—though I still did so, her name dying into a sigh on my lips.
I was surprised by my lack of surprise, but too tired to reflect. I did, however, stumble towards her bed, now vacated, where I slept, poorly, distracted by my own uncertainty as to whether it was her I smelled on the pillow or else the hotel’s generic detergent.
I could not face the hotel waiter for breakfast in the morning, and I set out for coffee encountering, around each corner of my confused way towards the center of town, another facet of the day’s glowing gray.
The coffee jolted me to perplexity, but not enough of me remained to wrestle with it, so much had been depleted in the charged hours of scrabble, the dizziness of the day before, and the entire yearning journey up to that point; so my old angelic friend remained perched on my creaky ladder of thought, bored, atrophying without challenge.
The rest of the day, I lolled in bed, on streets, in chairs, and then I slept soundly, well, that night. Something had gone wrong, at last, again. Another failure to understand what was in play, what was to be had, of me, of her. There is no use hoping, but I did not think it was time just then to end my trip and return home.
I will travel in a few hours to a city in Belgium, where I look forward to the wondrous delicacy of Flemish art, which seems as good as anything else right now. She mentioned her eagerness to see the vivid faces of Jan van Eyck: I am curious to see they will offer me.