Last words & epigraphs
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This work first appeared in Gargoyle, issue #6. Please respect the fact that this material is copyrighted. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose without the express consent of the author or artist.
Failure of the Heart
"Rome, they say, is the world, and on a day like this I believe it," said Linda Harding, smiling and looking beautiful in the soft spring dusk. She was an executive in a cosmetics firm, and Alan Scott, seated across the cafe table, thought her an admirable walking advertisement for her business, Her makeup was exactly right, noticeable but somehow not obtrusive; her lips were as pale as wheat, her nails were painted beige. But of course the dark helped; in broad daylight she showed her age-the skin stretched tight across the cheekbones as if she had had plastic surgery. And with a shock Alan wondered if she had.
"Yes, a perfect day," he said. "Time seems to melt here. The Ancient World, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the present--all of them seem to merge, I'd forgotten how uncanny it can be; it's been almost ten years since I was in Rome."
They had taken a leisurely stroll through the Borghese Gardens, then walked down the hill to this sidewalk cafe on Via Veneto. Later they were going on to dinner at a restaurant in Trastevere recommended by one of Mrs. Harding's friends as "new"--though it had been run by the same family for several generations. (Her friend had meant, of course, that it had only recently been "discovered" by the international crowd..)
"How lovely it is!" she said. "I'm sorry I'm leaving so soon. But it's been fun running into you. Isn't it incredible that we can't remember?" She laughed. "Isn't it completely incredible?"
"Must you leave so soon?" he asked, forgetting for a moment that he was leaving himself, though in a different direction. "Are you sure you'll be safe?" She was hiring a car the day after tomorrow and driving, alone, up the Ligurian coast, the Riviera dei Fiori, to the French frontier.
"Oh, completely safe, Alan. I've done it before. I feel safer here than I do on East Fifty-seventh Street. They have a good system here. I leave the car at the agency's branch office in Ventimiglia and then take the train to Cannes. I'll spend a few days there and then a week or so in Paris. I think I'll skip London this time. But your trip sounds so much more thrilling than mine!"
"It'll be very new for me," he said. "But it's something I've always wanted to do. And I'm hardly getting any younger."
"Who is?" There was a sudden serious look on her face. "I'm sure you'll have a marvelous time."
In a few days he was going to Naples to catch a cruise ship for Greece, the Agean Islands and, finally, a few days in Istanbul, which he expected to find "interesting" but which actually interested him less than Greece. (He had never been to Greece but he imagined that as the ship docked in the Piraeus, he would be able to see the whole of Athens--the Acropolis, the Parthenon--down to the smallest detail.) He wished he might go on to the Levant, Israel, Egypt; there were so many places he wanted to go to, but his funds were severely limited.
"You were thinking about your trip," Linda said.
He smiled. "You're right--but it's unwise to look too far ahead." They had finished their drinks. "How about a little walk down to Piazza Barberini? It's only a few steps away."
"Oh, I think not, Alan. I think I'll go back to the hotel and freshen up a bit, take a little rest. Besides, it's far too early to go to dinner in Rome. Why not pick me up later? About nine, say?"
* * *
Perhaps through Alan's ex-wife? "No," Linda said, "I have never known a woman named Melanie in my life--except of course, for the one in Gone With The Wind." Then perhaps through one of her husbands--she was twice divorced, she told him. No, Alan had never heard of either of them. Perhaps at a party? But whose party? Where had it been? It was a mystery they couldn't solve, and finally they laughed about it.
But despite Alan's laughter, he was disturbed.. He hated to think about the years he had lived in New York or about his divorce (suddenly, without warning, Melanie had left him for, of all people, a gambler from Las Vegas), which had sent him fleeing headlong from the city, as if it had been burning, to a post teaching French and Italian at a boys' prep school in Maine.
At first his self-imposed exile had been hell for him, but gradually he adjusted to it. He had quarters in a pretty white clapboard house owned by Mrs. Stickney, an old, lonely, and very kind woman, and it was probably her kindness, most of all, that brought about his adjustment. Now he was not many years removed from retirement. Last December, however, he had a heart attack and was hospitalized for two weeks. (Struggling through the bitter cold and the deep snow, Mrs. Stickney came to see him every day.) His doctor told him the attack had been relatively mild but advised him strongly to take several months of complete rest--there might be a second, far more serious attack unless he did.
Following the doctor's advice, Alan secured sabbatical leave for the second semester, and for the remaining winter months he did nothing but rest and read, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Stickney. But when the snow began to melt, when signs of spring began to appear in the bleak landscape, his thoughts turned to Italy and to Greece. The Mediterranean world, so old but ever self-renewing, might lift his flagging spirits. And though it would demolish his bank account, he decided to take this trip. It never occurred to him that he might meet someone like Linda Harding, someone he liked so much.
"Yes," Linda said. "Too bad we have to leave it so soon." There was a troubled silence between them and then she stopped and faced him. "I know how badly you want to go to Greece, Alan, but you could change your plans and come along with me."
He stared at her. Was she serious?
She read his mind. "0h, I mean it! I think we'd get along quite well. After all, you could go to Greece some other time."
"Well . . ."
"Anyway, I'm going to leave you now and get a taxi and go back to the hotel. You must have things you want to do alone. Call me if you like. I'm leaving early in the morning."
He knew she was giving him an opportunity to consider her proposition and after they found a taxi and she was gone, he stood for a few minutes, startled and bewildered. What was he to do? All at once he wanted to go with her--wanted it desperately. The loneliness of his life since his divorce struck him like a slap in the face.
Then why not? Why not do it? As she said, he could go to Greece another time. Why not? Why not do what he wanted to do? A passerby smiled at him and he realized he was smiling himself. Yes, do it! Do it! And he set off for American Express to cancel his trip.
But at the door he stopped in his tracks. His heart sank. What was he thinking of? What a fool he was even to consider such a thing! It was too late for him to embark on an involvement like this. If only he had been ten years younger! If only she had been!
No, no, he would go to Greece and from Istanbul he would fly home--to Maine, to the security Of Mrs. Stickney's pretty house, but also to the tedium of trying to teach his increasingly uninterested and unmanageable students. He would guard his health, and, if the fates allowed he would face his retirement alone. It was too late.
When he reached the Excelsior, Linda was just coming out, followed by a porter carrying her luggage. "Good morning, Alan," she said, no expression at all on her face. "So you go to Greece."
He nodded, handing her the violets. "This is a parting gift, deeply felt."
"Oh, Alan, how sweet of you!" She held the flowers to her lips. "How very sweet . . ." Then she got into the car and after she started the motor, she said, "Do have a magnificent trip! Ciao. Arrivederci." And she drove off.
As he watched the car move away, Alan, schoolmaster that he was, said to himself ' "Addio, my darling, not arrivederci. I'm absolutely certain we shall never meet again."