Erosion: I

He blinked rapidly, disconcerted by the abrasive incandescence of the poles which burnt at a novel distance. He was disoriented and trying to deduce his environs. He understood, vaguely, what had happened but as he laid there, the cold and hard tiling thwarting his attempts to convince himself he was dreaming, he repeated to himself: ‘it’s not possible! it can’t be possible!’. He was not dreaming. He had fallen to his nadir. Humiliated and nauseous, he rose slowly and attempted to compose himself. He stumbled to the mirror and checked for lacerations. Discovering none, he returned somberly to the theatre.

He sunk heavily into the plush, carnelian seat. His wife smiled at him, coiled her arm into his and rested her head on his shoulder. She looked up at him, his eyes seemed to be wincing in the manner eyes do when they are desperately attempting not to cry. ‘Darling, are you okay?’ she whispered gently. He opened his mouth to assure her that he was, but feared if he did he would be unable to suppress his tears, so he nodded and bowed his head softly upon hers. The tenor crooned: ‘Una furtiva lagrima…’.

He realised there was a problem, but was unequipped to understand it and unprepared to face it.

If the origin of his current impasse could be traced, his insatiable cerebral appetite would be the foremost culprit. He was and had always been, remarkably ambitious and chronically underwhelmed; these attributes making unideal bed mates. He declared repeatedly that his earnest, unrelenting search for meaning and, thereby, contentment, was unerringly fruitless. This spawned a concerning conclusion for us all, for we knew that if any of us were destined, whilst promenading upon the shore of life, to chance upon that coveted and elusive pebble of meaning, it would be Henry, and thus, we were individually and collectively perturbed that he, after years of concerted effort, had begun his bitter, apathetic descent into melancholy, having surrendered, perhaps martyred himself, to the unanswerable, perennial question of whether life has any intrinsic meaning. Moreover, Henry’s desolation had acutely impacted the emotional landscape we traversed, as his abundant vitality and perceptive empathy inspired us to strive for betterment.

But he grew more inconsolable and morose. Initially, we spoke nothing of it, to him, or amongst ourselves. We felt he had every right to feel the way he did, as perhaps, we thought, it stemmed from exhaustion. He had been pertinaciously seeking, inquiring, probing to no avail, and yet he continued resolutely, unvexed by the overwhelming futility of the task. By the time our concession had expired, he had cascaded to a depth we felt incapable of salvaging him from. The waning flame of our hope for his salvation was sustained by sparse, fleeting moments when he shone as he once did, dazzling us with his iridescent intellect and enlivened us with his delicate sensibility, but the intervals between these nostalgic moments grew longer and his flame diminished as Melancholia’s austere grip tightened upon him. Nevertheless, we remained hopeful that, somehow, perhaps by employing his trademark zeal and compassion, we could rekindle his once vigorous spirit and revive him to his former vivacity.

~

     Upon graduating from Tisch, and with enough saved, Henry departed New York to explore Italy; a country whose culture he had grown fond of, due, in part, to his mother’s love affairs with pasta, barbera and Verdi. He was enamoured by the rustic, old-world charm of Rome, the sophisticated glamour of Milan and the historically-rich, artistic heritage of Florence. He was fiercely devoted to and protective of his mother, and it pained him to leave her alone, as his brother had left for Harvard to study psychology. She assured him that she would be fine, though she would miss him immensely, and that after years of faithful accompaniment, he deserved to explore the world, and himself.

After months of debating what he should study with himself, he enrolled in an art history course at the American University of Rome, though he had very nearly enrolled in philosophy, he decided he did not want to tarnish his love for philosophy by studying it clinically. He fell madly in love with the city. Charmed by the unhurried allure of Rome, Henry felt very much at home in the café he would enjoy his espresso, in the enoteca he would indulge his penchant for Italian wine, and in the osteria he would savour bowlfuls of delicate, fatto a mano pasta. Roaming the streets for hours, enthralled by the convergence of the ancient and the modern, he would ponder ceaselessly, his thoughts unhindered, save the occasional protracted pause for thoughtless admiration of a statue or building.

Visiting their cosy, Upper West Side apartment, one was invariably met with the sounds of Wagner, Verdi and Stravinsky. The perpetual echo of opera developed an enduring passion for Henry. Whilst in Rome, he had attended the opera as frequently as his purse permitted. It was a warm, balmy July evening and after dining at Da Felice, Henry strolled leisurely to Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, contemplating his fortune at finding himself in the Eternal City and appreciating his opportunity to bask in its foreign and wondrous culture.

That evening saw Puccini’s Turandot take the stage. Henry had seen a staging of the opera at the Met with his mother, and recalled admiring the braveness of the prince, but condemning his brash impulsivity. Why would he risk his life for a woman he had only seen, let alone engaged with, so briefly. Moreover, a woman who employed riddles as the means of testing the mettle of her suitors could only be herself cryptic—an unideal characteristic in the melting pot of the ideal marriage. Nevertheless, Henry enjoyed the drama of the atypical romance and, having heard it repeatedly in his childhood, being a favourite aria of his mother’s, enjoyed immensely the tenor’s rendition of Nessun Dorma. During the second interval, Henry had collected his pre-ordered Manhattan and was seated opposite the bar. He overheard, and was intrigued by, the voice of a young woman ordering her drink. She was impeccably and unpretentiously dressed, gowned in a lightweight, opaque cotton, which draped gently from her shoulders, elongating her petite figure.

‘A perfect martini, please,’ she ordered.

He observed her delicate, elegant hands raise the glass to her sensual, yet guileless lips. The interval bell interrupted his appreciation, and he rose to return to his seat. He felt compelled to introduce himself, but reminded himself that he was not in Rome to fall in love. Perhaps it was the frivolous courage of Cálaf or the affect of a third cocktail, but he turned back to approach her. Alas, she had returned to her seat. He was disappointed, but reassured himself that it mustn’t have meant to be.

At the end of the opera, he lingered. He knew why, but ignored the voice which urged him to return home, lest he entangle himself in a drawn out, futile romance. After five minutes, the theatre had all but emptied, save a dozen guests in fervent conversation. He began walking down the aisle, when he was arrested by a svelte figure gazing upward at the ceiling. It was her. Having read enough of the Romantics, he knew that this second encounter should be the onset of intense, bewildering, enduring passion, but, desiring not to morph into an animated cliché, he paused, and attempted to observe her as unbiasedly as possible. But, as is often the narrative, he was enamoured, and through the thickly clad lorgnette of desire, she seemed statuesque, and as immortal as the art she contemplated. He stood idle, his mind warmed by excitement and fear. He composed himself and approached her tentatively, with long, considered strides until he stood adjacent to her save a single step. She was too engrossed to notice his presence.

‘Excuse my interruption,’ Henry apologised, uncharacteristically unnerved, ‘I saw you at the bar earlier, and you ordered a favourite drink of mine. I haven’t heard many people order it, and wondered, if it weren’t an imposition, perhaps you would be interested in another.’

She turned, frustrated by the imposition, irrespective of the stranger’s politeness. But, upon turning, she was met by his long, curious gaze, disarming her of her momentary annoyance. He had worn ivory linen trousers and a mismatched, bold canary blazer. Despite the boldness of his blazer, her gaze quickly focussed on his cufflinks, made, unostentatiously, of silver that held off-centre, small, yet radiant blood-red rubies.

‘Do I seem parched?’ the young lady laughed nervously, disconcerted by his fixed, yet unintimidating gaze.

He mistook her nervousness for agitation and hastily responded, reprimanding himself for inaugurating the conversation with such levity.

‘No,’ responded Henry, flustered, ‘not at all. I, I, just hadn’t seen many people order the drink. I really should have said what I thought, rather than attempting some nonchalant line about martinis…’ he sensed that he had ruined the moment of inception. He had a preoccupation with perfection of moments and felt, almost always, that if the genesis of a thing was imperfect, it became tainted and unsalvageable.

‘What were you thinking?’ she asked tenderly, curiously.

‘Would you truly like to know?’

‘I would.’

He would always remember the way she said, ‘I would’. Mellifluous was the word he most often used to describe the sound of her voice when she spoke those words. It was the first time the unsalvageable was recovered.

‘I feel I have been enchanted by you,’ he announced, candidly.

She looked at him, searching for the insincerity she was accustomed to. He was perfectly genuine. She was relieved, and relaxed.

‘That’s slightly puzzling, concerning even…’ she replied, furrowing her brow, feigning sarcasm.

‘How so?’ he inquired, detecting her badinage.

‘Well, how can you possibly have been enchanted by me when you stand in a city that is nothing if not enchanted?’ Olive asked, facetiously, ‘so, how can you differentiate between what is intrinsically enchanting and what the city has enchanted?’

He was taken aback. Her humour and eloquence roused him. Though he was uninterested in romance, he still encountered numerous, seemingly interesting, but ultimately banal young women, and had grown accustom to pseudointellectual, tedious interlocutors that rendered him languid with their affectations.

‘I have lived in Rome for half a year now’ he explained, blithely, ‘and in that time I have been taken by statues, fountains, basilicas and gardens, enchanted by them, one might say. I have sat at that bar during the intervals, nursing some drink or other, admiring the theatre, enchanted by it, one might say. This evening, when I saw you, charming that unassuming bartender, I am quite sure that the city and the theatre and the bar all receded into some celluloid backdrop for my captivation, my… enchantment by you, one might say.’

‘Well then, enchanted stranger, if I’m not mistaken, you proffered a perfect martini. Is there some speakeasy or rooftop I don’t know about which stirs the most perfect perfect martini?’

He was exultant. They were a short walk from Salotto, a spot he frequented on Piazza di Pietra to imbibe with an impeccable view of Il Tempio di Adriano. Her earnest, unpretentious interest in the arts permitted an exploratory dialogue without pretence to ensue, and they discussed fervently their mutual admiration of Phillip Glass and of Frank Lloyd Wright and of Virginia Woolf.

They were seated at his regular table in front of the window. Olive, as he had learned her name was, admired the view. She was studying architecture and was always impressed by the indelibility of antiquated structures. A young, strapping man with large, circular, black glasses, unruly hair and manicured beard had spotted Henry and had begun to stroll over.

‘Buona sera, Henry!’ bellowed the waiter, struggling to hide his boyish excitement.

‘Buona sera, Gianluca!’ Henry responded, rising from his seat to plant twin kisses on the waiter’s cheeks.

‘Who is your friend, mio amico?’ Gianluca inquired.

‘This is Olive.’

‘Buona sera, Olive!’ he exclaimed jubilantly, ‘what would you like to drink?’

‘A perfect martini, please,’ Olive ordered, smiling widely.

‘Make that two, please, my friend,’ Henry added, elatedly.

‘Two perfect martinis for this perfect evening,’ Gianluca confirmed, already walking back to the bar.

They learnt much about each other that first evening. They both felt very much at ease and the discourse flowed naturally, wandering from topic to topic without lapse. After an hour of engrossed conversation, Gianluca asked if they would like another drink.

‘Would you like another?’ Henry asked Olive.

‘I would love to, but my better reason urges me to head home. I have a class tomorrow morning.’

‘Then we’ll take our leave.’

Exiting Salotto, Henry asked if Olive didn’t mind him walking her home. She did not, and they continued speaking as they walked. Though a half hour walk, they felt their time had expired rapidly. Arriving at her apartment complex, Henry asked if she were available before her class in the morning.

‘For an espresso perhaps, if you are in the mood to deconstruct Austen or venerate Stravinsky…’

‘That would be lovely, Henry! How is eight?’

‘Eight is perfect.’

She extended her balletic hand. He seized it gently, leant forward and kissed her cheek. She smelt of the intoxicating Egyptian jasmine in bloom.

‘Don’t be late!’ she called back as she entered the building, knowing well that he certainly would not be.

~

 

Having been born into generational wealth, Olive was raised with the finest considerations. She had attended various private and finishing schools where her education and etiquette were refined. She would regularly attend the opera, theatre and symphony with her parents and siblings. She dined at hatted restaurants and lodged at grand hotels. She charmed society with her generosity and was as outspoken as she was well-spoken. Heavily was she pursued by her neighbouring bachelors, and vehemently would she reject their proposals. It was not love they pursued, she would laboriously elucidate to her parents, but prestige. Her composure and maturity—and rejection—only enflamed the infatuation of her admirers. She grew tired of the tedium of attending the countless social events and “pseudo-political handshaking and baby kissing”, that a young lady of her status was required to be seen doing so as to not rouse the already insatiable desire for gossip that plagued “vacuous and superfluous” café society. She was studying architecture and was immensely enjoying her course, yet, disillusioned with her surroundings, she decided a year abroad would remedy her ennui. Ever captivated by Rome during her visits, she chose the Eternal city for her temporary sabbatical.

After endless, passionate debates with her parents, she finally convinced them that she was perfectly capable of living alone abroad. She would study at the Università di Roma and live in Trastavere, a bohemian suburb in the heart of Rome, littered with innovative trattorias and artisanal shops offering the finest wine and cheese. There, she found herself unperturbed by insincere suitors and insipid commitments. She attended her classes diligently and studied well. Italian came naturally to her and she was quickly mistaken for a local. Though outwardly and sociable, she prized the time she spent in her own company. She now, voluntarily, found herself attending the opera and theatre and symphony as well as losing herself for hours in the art of the galleries and of the streets. Romantic entanglement was entirely unpursued and oft avoided. But, the Moirai had spun their own tapestry, and on a balmy Roman evening in July, she would cross the path of another platonic New Yorker against the romantic backdrop of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.

Ensnared by Romance, neither of them could miss a day without the other. They found each other intoxicatingly intriguing. She because he had substance and compassion and humility, and he because she had wit and humour and sympathy. Hours would pass as minutes as they spoke passionately on any and all subjects; an experience Olive had not had previously with eligible suitors of whom her parents approve, and Henry had resigned himself not to have whilst in Rome. Though she earnestly attempted to be worldly, being born into wealth, Olive was as unfamiliar with the bourgeoisie as Henry was with the beau monde.

 

‘So, you would attend an event almost each evening?’ Henry asked.

‘Almost,’ replied Olive.

‘Did you enjoy them?’

‘The events themselves were sometimes enjoyable. When you are obliged to do anything, it alwaysloses its charm.’

‘Naturally. How quickly did you find yourself attending the arts in Rome?’

‘Quite. At first, I worried it was habitual, but realised that I genuinely wanted to attend. It didn’t take long for it to regain its charm once it was voluntary. Would you attend the arts in New York?’

‘As frequently as I could.’

‘What do you recall fondly?’

‘Onegin was my first opera. I had read it a few months before I knew it would be showing, and when I saw it in the season, I bought the best ticket without hesitation. I remember how giddy I was the week before. I felt it signified some turning point, some self-proclaimed rite of passage. When I entered the Met that night, I felt it. It was almost imperceptible, but a welcome change had taken place within me and serves in my memory as a baptism into the pursuit and enjoyment of the arts.’

‘And what of you prior? What was your pursuit of?’

‘No single thing, only miscellaneous forays into transient passions.’

‘How old were you?’

‘Almost seventeen. Afterward, I went for dinner at Eleven. It was my first fine dining experience.’

‘Did you enjoy it?’

‘I was overwhelmed by it in the most wonderful way. To my surprise and pleasure, they handed me the wine list—a tome—and with nobody to defer the choice to, I had the insurmountable task of choosing appropriate wine.’

‘What did you choose?’

‘Well, to my great relief, the waiter, Jim, first asked if I would be dining on the eight or ten course degustation. “Ten”, I confirmed. Then he asked, “Will you pair or choose your own wine?”. The question rescued me from the vinous riptide I had found myself helplessly navigating and I responded as coolly as I could, “I’ll pair.” I was transcended by the experience.’

‘How charming! That is a lovely story, Henry.’

‘Thank you. You’re the first person outside of my family I’ve told.’ He was surprised by her reaction. He worried that she would think him uncultured, but she had quashed that concern entirely. ‘I hope I don’t grow senile and lose my memory of that night. Anyhow, what about you? Do you have a story of that kind?’

Olive paused to think. She often did as she prided herself on being precise and did not appreciate excess, in conversation as in all things. A resolute minimalist in all aspects.

‘I don’t think I do, Henry. I was fortunate to have had many wonderful experiences from a young age, so I don’t think I have experienced the novelty you did that evening. This may sound ridiculous, but I envy you.’

‘I understand.’ Henry spoke earnestly, impressed by her honesty and humility.

‘Do you really? I hope you’re not saying that to appease me.’

‘I’m not, truly. Novelty is my lifeblood. To have new, exciting, stimulating experiences is what I have sought since that evening years ago. Naturally, the intensity of novelty reduces; a different director, composer, writer, painter, but novelty is there, wandering inconspicuously on the stage, between the pages, within the brushstrokes, but he is there. It is then our responsibility to seek and understand and appreciate him.’

‘I’ve never heard it phrased as such. Your mind intrigues me. That you are not a parvenu from Park Avenue, but rather have acquired the mannerisms of the quintessential gentleman and sagacity of someone far superior in years’ despite being sown from humble roots is admirable. Who taught you to converse and behave in such a manner?’

‘An old friend of mine,’ Henry replied, suppressing an embarrassed, boyish smile.

‘Who, may I ask?’

‘Cecil B. Hartley.’

‘An older friend?’

‘Not exactly,’ Henry chuckled, ‘he wrote The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness. He must have passed a century before we were born, but I’ve read it annually since I was sixteen.’

‘How unusual you are, Henry. I’ve never met anyone as devoted to literature as you.’

‘I hope to devote myself to more than literature from here on.’

 

Such would they speak in piazzas warmed by afternoon sun and quiet, dimly-lit bars on eternal evenings. Olive was enamoured by his resplendent conversation, feeling sure to understand the world slightly differently with each discussion. Henry had never encountered anybody who was as sympathetic to his ruminations and consequent to her curiosity, explored notions deeper and more astutely than before.

 

~

     Henry, on the other hand, was born into a tumultuous, albeit intellectual, bourgeois family. Raised in Greenwich Village, the second son to an erudite English mother and vagabonding Spanish father, Henry could rarely be found without a book. Under his mother’s nurturing tutelage, he undertook what she aptly called “a classical education”, whereby he read all the classics she could source and afford. By eight he was reading Orwell and Hemingway, by thirteen, Flaubert and Wilde, and by eighteen, Dostoyevsky and Proust. Charlie, Henry’s brother, shared the same intellectual curiosity and voracious appetite for reading, but their mother saw different potential in him and administered an equally classical education that instead focused on the work of Freud, Jung and Piaget. Due to their father’s recurring absence, means were often scarce and their mother, Camille, worked long hours to support her sons’ education. Being precocious, both boys were admitted into The Browning School on academic scholarship. They thrived in the environment academically, but both grew disenfranchised by their lack of wealth and status. While their classmates were jet-setting and hobnobbing on vacation in the French or Italian or Swiss alps, they were bound to Manhattan, seldom travelling beyond the Hudson.

They never blamed their mother for their circumstance and placed the onus for their lot squarely on their father. His voluntarily peripatetic lifestyle they grew accustom to, in fact, they preferred his absence, for his presence brought infinitesimal joy. But once their parents divorced, they felt the financial burden more than ever. Though this was the case, when their father would attempt to reunite with their mother, both sons strongly encouraged her to remain resolute in her decision to leave him. His empty apologies were laced with shame and regret, and it seemed to Charlie and Henry that he thought his conciliation with his wife and children could absolve him of the wrongdoings he chronically committed. He was charismatic and had a proclivity for quickly winning trust, but both Charlie and Henry loathed their father’s character, finding him severely lacking in authenticity and unbearably jejune. Neither of them had spoken to him in many years, though he would send vague, banal letters stamped by innumerable international postal services. He had returned to his birth faith of Catholicism as many do when they notice their soul eroding and had gleefully donned the threadbare robe of the shameless Grand Pontificator, sparing none his zealotry; the same zealotry he had dutifully practiced in Hedonism, for the sake of consistency of personality.

It is often the case that a young man will fight desperately to be as like or unlike his father as possible. For Henry and Charlie, the path to becoming better men was one they would walk both alone and together, attempting to fill the paternal void for each other whenever one found themselves in need of reassurance or guidance. They fraternity strengthened over their adolescence and early adulthood. Even with Charlie in Boston and Henry in Rome, they spoke every other day at length, ensuring neither felt they were traversing unfamiliar plains alone. 

 

Changing of the tide