Henry woke in a curious mood. A distant sense of bitterness dashed his otherwise joyful disposition. In moments such as he had experienced the evening before the road one is traveling bifurcates leaving the traveler with a choice. The choice is always difficult, sometimes to such an unbearable extent that the traveler stagnates and, paralysed by fear, uncertainty and disdain of coercion (by the self or others), withers solemnly having never explored either path—the most severe of the outcomes. Such junctures do we all reach at various moments in our lives. As for Henry, a choice had been made.
The morning was mild, a series of cumulus clouds intermittently veiled the sun’s full force, giving rise to the vacillating desire for the sun when too overcast and the clouds when too sunny. Olive had planted a row of congenial wisteria in the garden outside their bedroom window. Henry observed the sprawling flowers elegantly suspended like clustered purple raindrops frozen mid-fall. They seemed to shimmer like amethyst in the early morning light and he was reminded of his father’s extensive amethyst collection. He recalled that as a child a towering geode stood in their living room which he would sit in front of for hours, admiring its radiance and ponder and pore over puzzling questions and subjects. One subject he was unable to cognitively surmount was of an eternal existence in an afterlife. When Henry was nine, during one of his many albeit brief sojourns in Henry’s childhood, his father had explained to him the premise, and promise, of the afterlife.
‘Once we pass, we must wait for the Day of Judgement to learn our fate,’ explained José, Henry’s father.
‘And then?’ Henry inquired, immensely curious.
‘Then we meet God.’.
‘Really? We meet God? But how?’.
‘We must, for only He on his scales can each and every of our good and bad deeds be weighed.’.
‘And if we have more good deeds than bad, we go to Heaven?’.
‘And if we have more bad deeds than good, we’re sent to Hell?’.
‘And then what?’.
‘And then eternity.’.
‘Eternity…’ Henry repeated, struggling to grasp the concept ‘and what is in Heaven?’.
‘Anything you desire!’.
‘All you have to do is ask.’.
Henry beamed. The thought of having anything and everything was too much for a child to bear and he began listing all the things he would ask for.
‘I would ask to play football everyday with Pelé and Beckenbauer and Maradona; and to eat crema catalana for breakfast and lunch and dinner; and to live in the biggest house; and to marry the most beautiful girl in the world…’ he stopped abruptly and stared intently at nothing as children do when their stream of thought is prematurely thwarted.
‘What is it, Henry?’ José inquired.
‘It’s just… if I can have anything I want whenever I want it, it doesn’t seem… right.’.
‘Why not? You earned it, you deserve it.’.
‘Yes, I know, but it just doesn’t make sense to me…’.
‘What doesn’t make sense, Henry?’
‘To have anything we want, whenever we want it, forever. It doesn’t seem… right.’
‘But, why not? You are being rewarded for your time on Earth, for all of your good deeds, for all of your hard work in remaining pious.’.
Henry was dissatisfied with the answers his father provided. He knew he was too young to understand certain concepts, but tried hard to understand them regardless. His mind had tangentially wandered to another matter within the subject.
‘What’s the opposite of forever, father?’.
‘So if we only live on each temporarily, why are we rewarded forever? And infinite time doesn’t make sense. Won’t we become old?’.
‘There is no age in Heaven. Everything we know on Earth is not so in Heaven. We do not have bodies or brains, so we can’t age and degrade. It is our soul, which can’t degrade, that goes to Heaven.’.
‘And our soul lives forever?’.
‘Yes. Now do you understand?’ José exhaled triumphantly, believing himself to have instilled in his son the concept.
‘Yes, father,’ Henry smiled, lying. He was still very much perplexed, but sensed his father did not understand either, and so ceased his questioning. Nevertheless, he would sit for fours in front of the mesmerising amethyst geode and attempt to contemplate the notions of the afterlife, eternal reward and the concept of eternity itself.
Henry thought of that conversation and his seemingly infinite rumination in front of the geode as he stared, blankly and childlike, at the amethyst wisteria. He hadn’t thought of that conversation in years and smiled fondly at his father’s well-meaning but unintelligent attempt at explaining such grand notions. He had realised in his adulthood that his father was a pseudointellectual. Capable, as he often did, of raising, but not exploring, grand philosophical and existential queries. He had a penchant for reading sporadically and inordinately enjoyed speaking superfluously and obtusely on Aurelius’ Stoicism, Al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers and Emerson’s Transcendentalism. What he lacked in understanding, he made up in charisma, charming his interlocutors with his capacity to meander around their inquiries with colourful pseudointellectual distractions which were little more than thinly veiled pretension and condescension. Henry found this pathetic promulgation repugnant and, in his late adolescence, implored his father not to speak on matters he did not take the time to understand. His father understood Henry’s advice as effrontery and, pitifully, implored him to not inflate his sense of intelligence and to recall that with his age came wisdom that could not be learnt in books. Henry was disappointed in his father’s myopic and solipsistic world view and consequently distanced himself. Due to his father’s character and myriad other reasons, they had not spoken in many years, nor had Henry thought much of him in that time.
‘How are you, darling?’ Olive asked as she drifted into the room with coffee and biscotti.
‘Well, my love. Thank you for the coffee. Which did you use?’.
‘No, the Pavarotti blend! You always said that’s your favourite, is it no longer?’
The blend was named after the tenor because when he would visit Florence he would stockpile so much of it that the roaster changed the name in dedication.
‘I had forgotten we had some,’ he raised the demitasse to his nose, ‘how delightful! You make the best, sweetheart.’
Olive smiled while walking over to the record player. Serge Gainsbourg’s crooning rung low:
Comme dit si bien Verlaine au vent mauvais.
‘I hope you haven’t forgotten that we have brunch in an hour,’ Olive playfully reminded.
‘A rhetorical question, one may presume?’ jested Henry.
‘You presume well.’.
Henry looked upon Olive. She wore a splendid, crimson, lace negligee.
‘Is that negligee from Paris?’.
‘It is. Though, you weren’t with me when I purchased it. How did you know it was from Paris?’.
‘Well, it must be!’.
‘What else would explain my sudden and confusing desire for both your body and Bordeaux?’.
‘Oh, can’t you be wonderfully frivolous!’ Olive cried, blushing.
‘If you’re not going to slip back under these sheets, I’ll have to drown my disappointment in a prematurely opened bottle of ’86 Margaux.’.
Olive feigned a gasp: ‘Not the ’86! Anything but the ’86!’.
‘I’ll have to do it if you don’t come here rapidement!’.
‘Je me rends! Je me rends!’ she exclaimed as she swiftly jumped back into bed.
‘Ah!’ Henry purred, ‘this, my love, is the picture of pure bliss.’.
They sat serenely, legs intertwined, sipping their coffee and listening to the hypnotic bass hum of Gainsbourg’s voice. After a quarter hour, Olive announced that they had to begin readying themselves. Her immense wardrobe boasted a collection of wonderfully curated and meticulously crafted pieces from artisans spanning Como to Caracas. Though she never lingered whilst dressing as she knew precisely what she was to wear for the given occasion hours, if not days, before the event arrived. Henry had fallen decades earlier for the considered carelessness of Italian suiting and owned dozens of insouciant numbers from Liverano, Battistoni and Sciamat. He decided on a favourite of his, coloured ‘Battistoni blue’ with oxfords he had made in Tokyo during a walking vacation of Mount Fuji. As Henry was walking to kitchen, he heard a knock at the door.
‘Coming!’ Henry exclaimed, walking back from the kitchen. ‘Charlie! What are you doing here? I thought we were meeting at the hotel.’.
‘We were, but I wanted to share something with you before we went,’ Charlie responded.
‘Prego!’ Henry replied, ushering Charlie to the kitchen, ‘what is it?’
‘It’s really nothing, but I felt a need to tell you. I scribbled it down earlier,’ Charlie explained, reaching into the ticket pocket of his blazer, ‘ah, here it is! So, I was thinking about, well, everything that you have been experiencing and suddenly this thought darted across my mind.’
He unfolded the paper and read it over in his mind.
‘It’s not as grand as the insights you have written and I’m sure you have come to understand it very well, but, I stress, I felt some urgent, uncontrollable urge to tell you,’ Charlie restated.
‘Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s of profound importance,’ assured Henry.
Charlie cleared his throat.
‘There is nothing quite as sweet as being understood, nor quite as devastating as being misunderstood. Except being understood poorly or misunderstood well.’
Henry stood silently, mulling over the statement in his mind the way one swirls wine in their mouth.
‘Say it again,’ Henry prompted, though his arms were crossed, he unfurled his right hand to gesture a concentric circle to request repetition.
Charlie was pleased, he sensed that Henry had understood it as he had felt it.
‘There is nothing quite as sweet as being understood, nor quite as devastating as being misunderstood. Except being understood poorly or misunderstood well.’.
‘And what made you think of this?’ questioned Henry.
‘I’m not sure exactly. I thought of you yesterday evening after I retired and you were on my mind this morning. Then I began thinking if you felt I understood you and the thought presented itself in my mind.’.
‘What was your conclusion?’ Henry asked curiously, ‘do you think you understand me?’.
Olive swept into the kitchen, carrying with her the alluringly married scents of oud and bergamot.
‘Charlie! What are you doing here? I didn’t even hear you enter! Never mind, we have to go, the driver is waiting for us.’.
Henry and Charlie nodded at each other in mutual acknowledgment that they would recommence later.
There is something about monumental decisions that are disorienting, as though one is simultaneously in and out of control of their own fate. It is a terribly exciting, daunting and inescapable feeling. Take, for example, the choice of leaping into a romantic relationship. We desire it, lust over it, dream about it and then come face to face with it. Yet we do not always dive in thoughtlessly despite our intense want, we often do the inverse. We weigh, consider, ponder, list, categorise, ask, ask again, and then, and only then, do we carefully wade into the water. This, of course, is not always true. Other times, we, with myopic hedonism, dive headfirst. Sometimes into a waterless pool. Henry thought of this curious phenomenon and wondered if he could conjure some vague explanation of how one chooses their method in those moments. It eluded him. Emotion often eludes us, or at the very least, eludes explanation. But, he was determined and wrote the following in his journal the morning of the brunch:
We are never truly in control of ourselves. The variant is the strength of illusion at any one moment. The veil, as I have discovered, is painfully thin.
‘Buongiorno, persone bellisme!’ Rosalyn cried.
‘Buongiorno, bella!’ Olive beamed.
Rosalyn was waiting for them in the lobby. She was dressed with panache. An oversized, salmon, linen shirt made her seem to float. They all exchanged kisses and buongiornos.
‘They are waiting for us in the café,’ Rosalyn said, hinging her arm into Olive’s.
‘Is it just William and Alain?’ Henry asked.
‘We have been surprised by another guest! Alain brought a friend along. His name is Domenico and he is a painter. I’ve seen some of his work, but he doesn’t exhibit often. Have you heard of him?’ Rosalyn inquired.
‘Domenico Valentino?’ Henry replied.
‘Yes, indeed! Have you seen his work?’.
‘As much as I could have. He was exhibiting in Umbria, at Brunello Cucinelli’s estate. Right, darling?’ Henry asked Olive.
‘Oh! Yes! His work was incredible! How wonderful that he’s here!’.
‘He’s as charming as he is talented. Consider yourselves forewarned!’ Rosalyn whispered as they approached the table.
And he was charming. One of those people whose posture told you everything you needed to know about him. Relaxed, but not unready, as though perpetually equipped for the forthcoming.
Everybody was introduced to everybody. When Domenico was introduced to Olive, his hand lingered on hers.
‘Buongiorno a tutti!’ the maître d, Peppino, bellowed, striding buoyantly to the table, ‘coffee to start?’.
Nobody declined and shortly a string of cappuccinos and espressos landed on the table.
‘It’s so lovely to see you all again,’ Alain exclaimed, ‘it’s been too long.’.
‘It certainly has,’ corroborated William.
‘How is your novel coming along, Henry?’ Alain enquired.
Rosalyn, William, Charlie and Olive held their breath collectively. They were still entirely unsure if Henry was yet entirely on stable ground despite his promising change of mien.
‘Better now,’ Henry responded, ‘I stalled, but the gearbox seems more functional now. You know how touchy a gearshift can be, especially on an older model.’.
Alain chortled. ‘I am too familiar with this mechanical trouble!’.
‘Are you translating anything at the moment?’ Henry asked.
‘Yes. I’m working on a new translation of The Divine Comedy. Brilliant work, but challenging, very challenging. The musicality of Italian is nearly impossible to convey in English.’.
‘It is such a shame,’ Domenico interjected, ‘that we are unable to read works in their original language. Despite the efforts of remarkable translators like yourself, mio amico, we can only comprehend and appreciate a percentage of the work. Take, for example, Chekov’s short stories. A Russian friend of mine assures me that their impact is softened in translation. As I assure him Moravia’s short stories would encounter the same fate.’.
‘Having translated for decades now, mon ami, I can, with heavy heart, substantiate these claims wholeheartedly. Do you think the same is true of art?’.
‘How can one overcome this barrier?’.
‘I think it is perfectly possible to feel, in the depths of one’s soul, the beauty of words or art without knowing the language or context,’ Olive asserted.
‘How?’ Domenico queried.
‘The heart and mind and soul have to want to see and hear and feel beauty. The barriers of language, context and comprehension are overcome by the desire, by the search, for beauty. We find only what we seek or what has sought us.’.
‘What if one has spent their entire life searching and found behind every promise an empty well?’ Henry asked.
‘If one has found nothing but empty wells perhaps one has sought nothing but empty wells,’ Domenic riposted.
‘What are you implying?’ Henry snapped.
The mood of the table shifted quickly. Henry was not quick to anger and when he was it escalated quickly so that this response concerned all except Alain and Domenico.
‘Niente... Tell me, amico, what would happen if one stumbled upon a full well?’ Domenico asked.
‘Celebration,’ Henry replied.
‘One could, at last, live peacefully.’.
‘Do you really think so?’.
‘What else can I think?’.
‘That life is endlessly incomplete. That beauty is complex. That meaning is not a matter of acquisition. That when one’s chariot is hurtling toward a predetermined destination it is blinded by the cloud of dust it produces and, in an attempt to outrun that cloud, the driver accelerates oblivious to the consequences of his actions, angered by the cloud—his cloud—and claims that it is the route, always the route.’.
‘But, we only have our own chariot…’.
‘Sì, and we all have the same chariot.’.
A brief silence ensued, followed by a waiter collecting orders. Henry had nodded at Domenico’s statement and Domenico had reassuringly reciprocated. Domenico did not know the tribulation Henry had experienced but sensed a fierce, insatiable desire he could not exactly place.
‘Henry, are you writing anything at the moment?’ Domenico inquired.
‘I am. It was causing me quite a lot of grief in fact as you may have noticed. It still is, though I am slowly understanding how to temper it.’.
‘Why the grief?’.
‘In attempting to write this novel, I realised, one by one, all of the illusions that I had been using consciously and unconsciously to mask the unbearable feeling of meaninglessness. That is not to say I have not enjoyed my life as I most certainly have. My incredible wife, our wonderful children, the success we have both worked for and savoured. But now, as I try to write something, anything, of significant worth, I find myself entirely lost for words.’.
‘But Henry,’ interjected Rosalyn, ‘Gallimard thought your work was brilliant and rich with insight. Why do you not agree?’.
‘I’m sorry to interrupt, Henry, and I realise this may seem premature given our brief introduction and conversation, but may I venture an answer?’ Domenico asked politely.
‘Come no?’ Henry replied accommodatingly.
‘Grazie, Henry,’ Domenico smiled, ‘I have painted for decades now, and without words I am privileged to convey my thoughts and emotions on the canvas. I never assess my work until it is complete and even once it is complete I am still tentative to assess it because I know I am expecting something. I am not sure what it is but I can feel the expectation growing as I am working, swelling inside my mind like a third glass of Barolo. But, I don’t indulge it. I know what it wants but I don’t have what it wants. Do you know what it wants, Henry?’.
Olive and Charlie grinned. So did Henry.
‘So what do you do with this expectation? In my experience, it only swells more, inquires more.’.
‘I sit with it. Communicate with it. Try to understand it.’.
‘And what have you discovered?’.
‘I discovered that art and perfection do not know each other.’.
‘No. Perfection is a construct of our desire to fight our imperfect nature and art is a construct of our desire to express our imperfection, so they do not get along well. Art is a heavily debated construct, stretched and constrained by the imagination and lack thereof of hands which ply it. Perfection is equally malleable, different for me and you and everyone. We are lucky if we can convey anything in a way that affects someone else. Perfection has no role in that interaction.’.
‘That is a truly beautiful perspective, Domenico. Ambiguous yet rich,’ Alain chimed.
‘It is,’ Henry corroborated, ‘poignantly said.’.
It was at this moment that Henry began to feel a burgeoning sense of satisfaction. The kind of which begins with relief and unburdening and morphs into gratitude and then fullness of spirit. As though the hill and Sisyphus could rest for a moment unburdened by their perpetual battle. This buoyancy affords sensational momentum and Henry, acutely aware of this, desired greatly to write.
‘Friends, would you all excuse me? I have a sudden and overwhelming desire to write,’ Henry stated with gravity.
‘Can’t you wait until after we’ve eaten, darling?’ Olive asked.
‘I know it seems dramatic, my love, but I feel as though I must do it now.’.
He spoke with an apologetic enthusiasm that conveyed his urgency without excess.
‘Okay, sweetheart, I understand.’.
‘I’m very sorry to leave abruptly,’ Henry exclaimed to the table, ‘I will see you this evening. You will all be there, won’t you?’.
‘They will be,’ Rosalyn answered on the table’s behalf. He was referring to Rosalyn’s premiere.
‘Perfect! A presto tutti!’ Henry cried, rushing to the door.
The waiter came with the food and asked where the seventh guest was.
‘He had to leave urgently, Domenico responded, ‘an unexpected guest.’.
‘Va bene,’ acknowledged the waiter, ‘not a worry. Would you like me to pack his meal?’.
‘That would be lovely, thank you very much,’ Olive said appreciatingly.
How long has he felt this way, if I may ask?’ Domenico posed the question to the table in a considerate and curious fashion.
‘Internally, we don’t know,’ Charlie responded, ‘externally, nearing a year.’.
‘I see. Is it only the novel? Are there other reasons? It does not strike me as a midlife crisis. He seems too cultivated to have been this troubled by a midlife crisis.’.
‘We thought so too. Domenico, Henry is an anomaly. When we were growing up, despite my seniority of age he always guided me in unspoken ways. He has always led by example. He conducted himself with such decorum and compassion in the face of adversity, even explicit, careless scolding. It was not born of stoic disposition or buddhistic serenity, it was because he cared so much for the other person, worried about them as they berated him, thought of the circumstances that had led them to this point, that he rarely responded in kind. He has been that way for as long as I can remember. Then, seemingly overnight, he disappeared, replaced by an apathetic, melancholy shadow of the man we all knew and loved. Perhaps it finally caught up with him, the years of compassion and concern and calm, only replaceable by apathy because he had nothing more to give.’.
‘And the novel?’.
‘He attempted to begin a work that you or I or anyone could pick up and truly be an inch closer to a more actualised existence, a fraction more at peace within ourselves.’.
‘That is an incredibly high yardstick.’.
‘Yes, it is. I wonder if when Dante wrote the final word of Paradiso he felt he had written a work that could reverberate over centuries, through changes of beliefs and civilisations . Can one set out to write a work of that magnitude? Or is it left to the muses?’.
‘Art is endowed; we are merely ephemeral mediums. It is paramount we do not forget that.’.
‘What happens if we forget?’ Rosalyn inquired.
‘Two possibilities: first, we risk aggrandising ourselves, elevating our importance to that of a genius at best and a God at worst. We also risk Henry’s fate. That of being crushed under the unbearable weight of production. A self-imposed prison manifested by the mind when one believes they are capable of doing what no artist has done before: remedying the human condition.’.
‘If that is one’s aim, even if they fall short, will they not have still produced something of incomparable quality relative to their oeuvre?’.
‘They may, yes, but they risk becoming prisoners of their own intellect in the process. The intellect, though a wonderful device, often falls out of orbit of its guiding star: the soul. The soul knows that each person must undertake their own journey. No two journeys can be the same, thus no one thing can universally inch everybody forward.’.
‘If so, Domenico, how do you remedy the practitioner?’.
‘By returning them to the essentials.’.
‘Love and art.’
‘Olive can look after the former, will you assist with the latter?’.
‘It would be my pleasure.’.
The waiters placed a flurry of bruschettas and omelettes on the table. The scents of taleggio, basil and fresh sourdough perfumed the air.
‘Bon appetitio!’ exclaimed Alain.
They all enjoyed their meals and spoke chiefly of Rosalyn’s premiere and Domenico’s upcoming exhibition in Paris. After brunch, Olive approached Domenico.
‘Thank you for your patience earlier, Domenico,’ Olive began, placing her hand on his forearm, ‘it hasn’t been particularly pleasant of late but your words had an effect on Henry and that is terribly rare, moreover for someone he just met.’.
‘It is my pleasure, Olive. He is a most intelligent man with intense life within him. A few years ago, I had a similar experience. We all respond differently to the same realisation. The feeling of futility and meaninglessness is truly overwhelming. The more astute the experiencer, the most intense the feeling.’.
‘How did you overcome it?’.
‘Initially, I threw myself into my work but I found myself trying to do the same as Henry; trying to remedy the human condition through my art. I think we begin around this endeavour for two reasons. Firstly, if we can create something that we feel may stand the test of time our futility is, at the least, temporarily allayed. Secondly, if we can create something that answers our own call for meaning, naturally we endow that meaning upon our own life, at the least, temporarily assuaging our paralysing feeling of meaninglessness. To mine, and Henry’s, bitter disappointment neither undertaking can be fruitful before the pivotal and trying task of surrender.’
‘To what? Or whom?’
‘To love and then to art.’.
‘In that order?’.
‘Yes. For there is no art without love but there is love without art.’.
‘No, there is not. But how exactly does one surrender?’.
‘It is the hardest task I ever attempted. It is voluntarily swimming into the ocean beyond your capacity to return, having told no one of your endeavour. You are alone without a lifeline, you are terrified and exhausted, you have come face to face with your futility and meaninglessness. You can die and the world will continue in your absence. Now you are left with a most primitive and binary decision: life or death. You are entirely in control of your fate but entirely subject to your circumstance. In that moment you have surrendered to your existence and it is only then that you can surrender to love and art.’.
‘You are right, Domenico, undeniably.’.
‘It is easy to be right with words if one is artful. To be right with action requires infinitely more courage. That is what men like Henry and I lack most. Not quotidian courage, that we may possess in abundance. Rather, intellectual courage. The courage to abandon that intellect and surrender. That cannot be underestimated.’.
‘No, it cannot. You have reached a degree of intellectual and emotional freedom which Henry is attempting to reach. I would appreciate if you would have a drink with him before you leave if it’s not too much trouble.’.
‘The pleasure will be mine, Olive.’.
‘Thank you, Domenico, I truly appreciate your generosity.’. She kissed him on the cheek and they rejoined the group who had relocated al fresco for espresso and cigarillos. They soaked up the abundant sunshine and were collectively calmed by the soothing Florentine panorama. All agreed to reconvene prior to the premiere for aperitifs at Henry and Olive’s.’.