Luca, the young doctor, stopped Peter in the middle of the alley and took the branches right out of his hand. “Professore, you feeling bad?” Luca asked.
“I—” Peter muttered through his nest of a white beard. “No, I’m fine, thank you.”
The doctor took Peter by the arm and led him aside to the fountain at the Piazza della Madonna. Peter watched him stick his hand under the water. Then he felt a cold splash against his forehead. Another splash soaked his temples and ran down into his beard in droplets. Then Peter found Luca’s hand cupped, full of water, touching his lips. “Drink, drink,” Luca said, so Peter drank. “One minute, Professore. Stay one minute.” Luca reached into his bag and pulled out a stethoscope and thermometer.
Peter stood there and allowed Luca to examine him in the middle of the street while Signora Della Salla passed and stared, carrying a case of wine against her hip. A group of children darted from the sun into the chilly shade, chasing each other and shrieking with joy. To his right were Our Lady’s Steps, a dark tunnel of rough stone. The other end of the tunnel was a bright semi-circle half-full of the brilliant sea.
Peter breathed when Luca told him to breathe and bit the thermometer when Luca told him to. He noticed with annoyance that even when performing his medical duties Luca swaggered as if he had not been discharged from the Navy—as if he were still in whites with a sword swinging from his side. That swagger was one of the things Peter disliked about the village’s only doctor. The other thing he disliked was the way Luca pursued Nina: lazily, as if because Luca and Nina were the only young people to have lived abroad and returned to the village they would have to marry no matter how little effort Luca put into courtship. Peter grimaced with the thermometer under his tongue. Wasn’t it true that they would inevitably marry? No, no, he told himself. Nina wasn’t a normal woman—Nina was special. She wouldn’t marry a man who didn’t understand what Peter called her “angelic qualities.” But what interest did Peter, at sixty-one, have in the affair? What was it to him whether Nina married Luca or any other unworthy man? Nothing at all, he told himself grimly. Although twenty-five years ago he, Peter, could have shown Luca a thing or two about how a woman like Nina deserved to be wooed. But no, he realized—twenty-five years ago he would have done no such thing. Twenty-five years ago he had been a coward, infinitely worse than Luca, and he was still a coward. Didn’t he know how cowardly he was? Wasn’t he gathering those twigs in cowardice?
The doctor took the thermometer and frowned.
“May I have my twigs back?” Peter asked.
Luca picked up the branches from beside the fountain and handed them to Peter. “You are always working, Professore? Studying, studying, plants.” He indicated the twigs. “Always you gather these. You work too hard for your age. You wear a heavy coat, a thick beard, in summer time.” Luca indicated Peter’s three-piece tweed suit and the coat that Peter wore buttoned at the neck. It spread over his shoulders like a cape. Peter’s beard was white and grew thickly almost to his eyes. His glasses rested atop it like two eggs in a nest.
“I . . .”
“You need more relaxation. You need to swim and relax. You go to the grotto sometimes, yes?”
Peter’s face burned. “Sometimes,” he answered.
“Well you will go more often now. You are pushing yourself like a young man when you are not young. You work beyond your forces. Always studying, you will have a stroke. I tell you this as a friend.”
“Thank you,” Peter said. “Now I have to go.”
“Professore, you take a beer with me at the Terrazza?”
“No, thank you. I have to work.”
Luca shook his head. He replaced his stethoscope in the bag, then swaggered down the alley toward the Bar Terrazza’s white umbrellas.
Peter’s apartment was above Signorina Santora’s pizzeria at the bottom of Our Lady’s steps. The air inside the tunnel was chilly and smelled like lemons and salt. As Peter emerged from the steps and hurried toward his door, eager to escape with his twigs into the shady privacy of his room, he saw Nina standing on the piled rocks of the marina. Her feet were soaked with sea spray and were wide apart for balance. She wore a yellow dress. Her hands were on her hips. She said something to her uncle, Bartolomeo, as the latter stood in his little sloop and lowered the rigging. Then she laughed, throwing her head back. That’s when she noticed Peter. She raised an arm and waved broadly above her head. Her smile was as brilliant as the sea and just as inviting. Peter waved in response. He briefly considered going down to talk to her, but “you’ll embarrass her,” he snapped at himself. Shamed, he hastened to unlock the door and hide away in his rooms.
His room was a dank, crumbling closet. The whitewashed walls were jaundiced by the last tenant’s five-year-old smoke. His bed was a narrow cot.
Here he paused for several minutes, twigs in hand. Not for nothing did the village children laugh at him and call him “Little Professor.” They laughed at him when he tripped on the boulders and muttered “golly!”; they laughed at his heavy coat in summer time; they laughed when he tried to kneel in church and instead fell over and came up red in the face with his glasses askew; they had heard their mothers call him “a little child” and they thought of him as a misfit child, one of themselves. It was his manner that did it—from youth he had always had the absentminded manner of the innocent, impotent old man. Even in public, he often paused with his hand on his beard for minutes at a time, thinking. In his room he sometimes stayed that way for hours. Now he stared at the twigs grimly. He lifted them, then sighed, changed his mind, and dropped them on the bed. They weren’t necessary quite yet.
The truth was, the man the villagers called “Professore” was no naturalist. He had never had the slightest interest in botany. His profession was philosophy—his lifelong work was the pile of index cards and scattered scraps atop his desk: his Cohesive Metaphysic. Some of the index cards were yellow with age. Those had first been marked during his post-doc in the early seventies. Some were brand new, white and clean, half-sheathed in plastic wrap.
The mere sight of the desk sent an ache through his shoulders. Forty years of work, and he hadn’t found what he had been sure it was his life’s work to find. He had spent forty years seeking the one answer that couldn’t be split into more questions—the synthesis that could not be reduced into any further theses and antitheses. But for forty years he had found nothing but questions where he expected answers. His mind had the power to reason limitlessly—that was his gift. Everyone had seen it, even in his adolescence. At Yale, he had made a name finding the truth in any falsehood, the falsehood in any truth, the half-portion of good in any evil, and in any virtue, the vice. How was it possible, then, that after forty years of work he had discovered nothing without discovering its opposite? How was it possible that his Cohesive Metaphysic was no closer to completion than it had been on his twenty-first birthday when he had marked the first index card?
With an wheezing sigh he lifted his gaze from the desk to the window above it. The view was arguably the most beautiful in Europe. The electric blue sea made his window look like a fishbowl. Below him was the promenade, the flagstone walkway where tourists laughed and silverware clinked. To the right was the overgrown path that led up the hill to the zebra-striped church on the rocky promontory. Every village along this stretch of coast had just such a church, an abandoned marble pile assaulted by spray and connected to the coast by a hundred-foot thread of boulders. Past the promontory he could see the Punta Rosa, the pink cliff. Between the church and the cliff was the grotto. Peter pulled his gaze away. To the left was the marina. Dozens of little boats poked at the sky, their masts tossing regularly like metronomes. There was Bartolomeo in his boat, wrapping up his sail. And there, barefoot on the promenade, was Nina. She was on her way to the grotto for her nightly swim.
Peter turned toward the door. He stopped. He turned toward his cot. Grabbing the twigs, he stared at their leaves for a long minute, then dropped them on the bed. He shook his head and sat in the little wooden desk chair, picking up his pen. He could hardly read the words in front of him, much less consider why the thesis that “every thesis not only suggests but contains its antithesis” was not a satisfying thesis. He stroked his beard; he tapped his pen; he saw the sky change from brilliant blue to dusky gray.
He dropped his pen. There was nothing wrong with a walk, he told himself, as long as he stayed away from the grotto.
But there were only so many roads in the village, and Peter found himself wandering as he always did, up the hill and down it, then up the path overgrown with lavender and rosemary. Still, he told himself, he wouldn’t go all the way there. He’d turn around in time. “No you won’t,” he reproached himself, and then reproached himself for wasting time with reproaches while his feet took advantage of his diversion to climb further toward the grotto.
Nina had been the first person to talk to him in the village. One sunny afternoon five years earlier Peter had stood with his hand on his beard, lost in contemplation of a paving stone. She had approached and held out her hand. “Hello—I haven’t introduced myself,” she had said, as if she naturally should have introduced herself. “I’m Nina. Who are you?” Nina’s English was heavily accented but idiomatic. Although she was in her late twenties or early thirties, she always reminded him of a child. Maybe it was the freckles, maybe it was the tiny nose and plump face. That first day, Peter had thought it was her kindness that made her childlike, and maybe he was right. Immediately, Nina had suggested that they have a few beers and some peanuts at the Terrazza. Before the first beer was gone she had grinned at him and said, “You remind me of a mix between American Santa Claus and an E.M. Forster character.”
This was a declaration of friendship. From then on they spoke almost every day. He discovered that she had spent five years in New York City, and so they discussed America. Yet, despite her graduate degree from NYU, she had returned to the village of her birth without a whit more sophistication than anyone else in town. Unlike the young doctor whose very walk bespoke a desire to appear cosmopolitan, Nina never mentioned America to the villagers, or compared New York to the village. Peter was ashamed to think of how badly, by comparison, he had treated the people in Hewitt, West Virginia on his first Christmas break from Yale. Nina could never be cruel.
The sun was behind the mountain by the time he reached the top of the hill. There the finestra sul mare, a window-sized hole in the rock ridge, overlooked the grotto. He sat on the marble bench below thefinestra and gazed. His face burned in the cool dusk.
A hundred feet below, a white figure lay on a boulder next to a green pool. Peter could just make out her tiny waist, impossibly tiny when compared to her flanks which were round like those of a carved fertility goddess. As he watched, she stood, stretched, and dove into the sea, only to emerge slick and clean, fifty feet out toward the church. She glided toward it but avoided the boulders nearby. The waves were wildest near the church. A foolish swimmer would be knocked unconscious. But Nina was an excellent swimmer. She turned onto her back and returned to the grotto, which was now full of shadows.
Peter’s mind couldn’t sustain a single coherent thought while he watched her. That was part of why he came to the finestra each night, despite himself. It was a sort of ecstasy—he couldn’t argue himself out of it if he wanted to. He had no reason, no understanding, no intellect at all. All he had was sight.
He watched her climb out of the ever-darkening pool onto the boulder where her yellow dress was folded next to a towel. She rubbed herself all over with the towel; she squeezed her hair into a long, stiff rope. She picked up her yellow dress and put it over her head, then pulled it down over her still-damp body so that it stuck to her and the cotton became translucent in places. This was the point when Peter usually left, so that he would be safely back in the village before she had climbed up out of the grotto.
Now he stood to leave, but was petrified by an unusually strong attack of remorse. He brought his hand to his beard and stared at the rock column in the middle of the finestra.
Again, he had come. What did it matter, he told himself violently. She was so far away, he could see practically nothing. Nothing! She was too far away for him to even recognize her, had he not already known her movements so well. (No other woman would climb a rockthus, or towel herself off just so.) But despite his logical self-exculpation, he couldn’t talk himself into letting poor eyesight blur his shame. Had he been blind, he still would have come here each evening, just as guiltily, paying silent homage to her scent on the wind. What need was there to be guilty, though? He doubted whether Nina would have tried to cover her nakedness even if he had gone right down onto the rocks and said hello. Sometimes tourist families happened by her, and she never changed her routine or covered herself up. She was so natural, so unashamed. Besides, those rocks were an unofficial nude beach. In the heat of day, dozens of leathery bodies were laid out in the grotto like fish for drying. Peter could have stripped and joined them without raising an eyebrow. Just because Nina chose to do her swimming in the solitude of evening didn’t mean she expected privacy. No, she would not have been ashamed to discover that he had seen her. Why then should he be ashamed?
But he was ashamed. That was the fact—none of these other arguments had any power against it. After the very first evening, when he had first taken this walk by chance, he had stood enraptured in front of the finestra as Nina, whom he loved, displayed herself like Raphael’s Galatea. Even then, he had felt like a dirty old cyclops. Halfway through her toweling-off, he had suddenly run away, back down into the village, fearing that she had spotted him. He had vowed then and there to avoid the finestra. Again and again he made that vow, yet again and again he found himself there. Fifty, sixty nights in a row he spent in an agony of self-loathing. He prayed for strength in the morning, and went again in the evening. He began punishing himself. He made a deal with himself, that he would not eat more than a dry slice of bread any day after having visited the finestra. The threat of near-starvation kept him away for ten days in a row, but in the end he lacked the strength to stay away. He gave up on his fasting and instead started beating himself with the twigs he collected after each jaunt to the point. He told himself it was sickly, medieval, ridiculous behavior. Yet he continued to gather twigs so often, with such assiduity, that the people in town had actually come to believe he was a botanist. The publicity of his guilt only made it more acute—they spoke with smiles of what they didn’t know, and each time Bartolomeo gestured to Peter’s mode of penance and grinned, saying, “Hey Professore, you always hard at work!” Peter sank a little deeper into the lie.
Then there was the lie about his conversion. Not a lie… For most of his life a lackadaisical Episcopalian, he had suddenly converted to Roman Catholicism. He told the old women of the village, when they had kissed him after his confirmation, that “the beauty of Italy” had converted him. But to himself he sometimes admitted that he hoped, by paying homage to Nina’s God in her very church, to appease that God and stop Him from attacking him with such unendurable desires and incurable weaknesses. But God had not had mercy on him—just as before, he kept going to the finestra each night. The only difference was that after his conversion he confessed it each morning under the vague heading of “lust,” although he sometimes admitted to himself that this was a false confession, and that lust was not what he felt for Nina.
More and more he just wanted a place to rest. He was like a swimmer too close to the crags, where the waves were wildest, who refuses to come ashore. He could have found rest by stopping his nightly trips to the finestra once and for all. He could have found rest by once and for all convincing himself that there was nothing wrong. Then he could even have seduced Nina with his age and helplessness—she was exactly the type of woman who could be drawn in by an impotent old sinner. She was the type who could absolve him of his conscience’s charges by giving her flesh to him in what he would have called “angelic pity” . . . but no. He had neither the weakness to adjust his convictions to his desires, nor the strength to tame his desires to his convictions.
Standing there, he stroked his beard. Then his meditations were shattered. Two big black eyes met his. He blinked, and saw Nina staring up at him. She lifted her arm in a wave, her dress sticking to her breasts.
He stumbled backward through the rosemary. He clutched his chest. His round black glasses slid off one ear and hung from the other. He grasped them. Where could he go? He had to run and hide. So he turned and strode out the path that led from the finestra along the rocky promontory to the abandoned church. If only he could reach the church and hide himself before she climbed up and saw him. He ran, but as he was no athlete only the rope railing saved him from a headlong dive onto the crags.
The church was cold and dark. He stood in a shadowy corner next to a window with no pane. The crags sent up spray. The sea was everywhere around him, black and angry. He clutched the windowsill until his knuckles hurt. Looking down, he noticed the glint of the moonlight on the sharp stones. How shameful, to think such a thought at his age! “Why shameful? Is it shameful to abandon a failed enterprise?” “How do you know it’s failed?” “So long I’ve been trying, without the slightest progress. Just futility. If at my age I know nothing, there is nothing to be known and I might as well save myself from one more day of this.” “What if she’s not angry at you?” “It doesn’t matter. If she’s not angry it means she doesn’t even recognize me as a man, just as an American Santa Claus. What humiliation.” “And are you so weak you can’t stand humiliation? Is this the way a human being should end his life? What about your youth? Remember when you felt you were omnipotent?” “That’s the cruelty of it. I’ve accomplished nothing. I am nothing.”
He turned and saw Nina in the doorway of the church. Her white teeth shone in the moonlight. She held her towel.
He straightened himself up and let go of the windowsill. His palm was covered in wet stone dust.
“Would you like to have dinner at the Marina?” she asked with a smile.
“I wanted to stay up here a minute.”
Nina stepped forward. “Are you okay? You look sort of down.”
“Yes. I’m fine.” He stood back on his heels. “I’m sure you’re hungry.”
“I’ll wait for you.”
“No, go down.”
“Peter,” she said with a smile.
“Nina,” he said, hanging his head.
Her face fell. “Okay. When you come down later, join me. I’ll be at the Marina Piccola.” She turned and skipped back down the rocks toward the overgrown path. Her feet were bare; her wet towel was in her hand; her dripping hair had created a translucent spot on the back of her dress.
Not until she disappeared amid the sea lavender did Peter sit back on the windowsill and catch his breath. For some reason, for the first time in years, he thought of Susan. Susan, from graduate school, whom he could have married. If he had married her, he would have another alternative. He would not be in Italy now; wherever he was, he would not be reduced to peeping at young girls. He would be the head of a family instead of a secret pervert. He and Susan had been best friends. They would have been happier than many married couples he knew. Why had he left her when she talked of marriage? Why had he done that? He thought back and tried to recreate the feelings of that day. She had asked when they were going to think about “the future,” and Peter had been intoxicated by a surge of pride. He had felt an infinite power in himself, and told her about it. He had said he didn’t want “to waste it.”
Only now did he know the truth. He was old. He was sick. Luca had told him he would die soon—die, just like normal people. All that “infinite power” had come to very little. Of course, once he knew about his weakness it had been too late to go back and marry Susan. She had married a colleague from her department during her post-doc, while he, Peter, had been disciplined by the faculty committee and eventually removed from the American academe altogether for peeping through the fence slats at Dr. Linda Howard… but that was not for revisiting now. In any case, he had found out his weakness. He too was like other men.
Worse, he was not only morally but also intellectually like them. HisCohesive Metaphysic was never going to be completed. Once, he had been sure he would be the next Hegel. Now he feared he was a backward Hegel—he divided each synthesis into a thesis and antithesis, and then broke each of those in two as well. It had come to nothing. He had come to nothing. What was that dream he had chosen over Susan? Was it just air? No, it couldn’t have been just air. It was himself he had chosen. It was his intuition of greatness. But where had that greatness gone? How had he failed? Or had the intuition itself been a delusion?
Spray flew in through the window and chilled him. He shivered and slid down to sit on the cold stone floor. At the other end of the church was the altar, a wet slab. It had not been used in decades. No images were left; there were no pews, just black and white stone. The walls were zebra-striped marble, the floor a checkerboard pattern. He thought it fitting. At the moment, the universe looked like a never-ending chess match between each creature and his creator.
Bitterness sank down and chewed at his heart. What had he done to deserve this? He had tried to be like God always—to imitate, sincerely, the Being he could admire without much belief. As a scholar, he classed God in with Beauty and Truth as “good ideas that may not exist but are useful as Platonic guidelines.” Admitting that the God of Love was the best possible ideal (if not necessarily a reality) he had striven for years to imitate that God in everything. He had studiously pored over the scriptures and made sure to love his neighbor. He had turned the other cheek on several occasions, and suffered the little children to laugh at him and even to pull his beard. He had given drink to the thirsty and food to the hungry whenever it was asked of him. Why, then, should he be denied this seemingly less important virtue of temperance in his evening walks? He had tried everything to perfect himself “as his heavenly Father was perfect” but nothing had come of it. Starvation, beatings, penances worthy of the great saints had been easy for him. But where were the results? He was right where he had started! He hadn’t climbed a single rung on any ladder of perfection. How was it possible that a lifetime of effort could avail nothing?
He probed the wound, wincing, enjoying this new certainty that he was a fool. Yes, a fool. He’d have been much better off if he had abandoned God in his youth for some other, easier ideal. Without God he could have looked at Nina in peace—no, he wouldn’t have had to limit himself to looking. He could have gone all the way to having her. He could have seduced her and had it over with. It was this obsession with God that had reduced him to sneaking, stooping, hiding from his own mind. Voyeurism, perversion. All for God, he thought bitterly. He only fought this exhausting battle for God—for God, he stung himself with twigs—for God, he starved himself. All for God, all for nothing—after all, he was no better now than he had been. It was all for God, who, if He had created the world, had made it so complicated that after fifty years of thought a man could know, if anything, less than he had started out knowing. A world in which every action had an equal and opposite reaction; in which fifty years of effort moved you nowhere—a world like a treadmill. The universe was a box within a box within a box, and inside the last one were two boxes which started the whole thing over again.
Suddenly he stood up. His face was red with rage. His eyes bulged behind his glasses, and angry tears spurted from them. “I don’t know how to do it!” he cried out. “I don’t know, okay? Damn it, I don’t know!” He spoke as if someone was there to hear him. His eyes flashed. “I give up! I give up!” he said, at last abandoning resistance.
An hour later he sat at the Marina Piccola with Nina. He asked her for a bite of her salad. His manner was free and intimate like that of a lover. She grinned and passed him her plate, her eyes shining. Peter lived another year before suffering a fatal stroke at his desk. Some of the townspeople noticed a childlike smile that replaced his former look of preoccupation. They noticed, too, that his nightly walks gave way to long dinners with Nina at the Terrazza, that he never again gathered a single twig. They speculated in whispers about the secret new pastime that had overthrown his passion for botany. Whenever he and Nina passed the pizzeria on their way to dinner, Signora Della Salla clicked her tongue and commented on an incriminating glow that she would notice anew in Peter every night of the week. At this the other women in the restaurant always nodded, their eyes big with agreement. All year the town waited for some final proof to justify all the nodding, but no one reports ever having noticed anything else.