The woman seated across from me resembled a series of geometric shapes, painted in primary colours—red, yellow, blue—and floating around each other as if suspended in air. The fruits of light and shade, perhaps. Or more correctly, the space-cake—somehow maintained in one piece on the train trip from Amsterdam to Nice, then to Milano—had taken hold, charging my perspective. Rather than shirk or fight the special effects, I embraced them. My broad, almost pained smile indicated the extent of my acceptance. Edgar Allen Poe wrote that those who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In my buzzy state, I took these words to heart.
A white-haired waiter—in what resembled a buckled straightjacket—wove nimbly among the tables, balancing a silver tray on his head. The axiom that we only grow old when we stop playing never seemed truer. A testy lake breeze muffled the murmuring patrons, linen and silk their fabrics of choice, Armani and Gucci their marques. Who were these people? No idea. I sat alone, admiring the shifting fluid blues of Lake Como and the imponderable bulk of the snowcapped mountains, now and then scoping the fragmented woman. A failure to locate her eyes curtailed any contact, even though a failure to rationalize my reasons for stopping in Lake Como left me open to suggestions.
I had fled Toronto shortly after my wife of ten years left me without warning. Perhaps I should have seen it coming. Perhaps I did. In any event, I couldn’t escape all the daily reminders, big and small, slapping me in the face, kicking me in the nuts at every turn. This is where we did this, this is where we did that. This where we had our first lobster. This is where we had our last espresso. Even walking down the street became an impossibility. Those torturer twins, regret and nostalgia, can be merciless. So I cashed out, and fucked off to Europe, with no plan in mind except to be gone from Toronto, uncertain if or when I would return.
It had rained the entire week in Amsterdam. The walls of my hashish-hazed room at the Hotel Smit started closing in on me. Thought I’d lose my mind if I didn’t see some sunlight. I took the next train to Nice and spent some time on the beach. For three days I spoke to no one except waiters in restaurants and bars, and the formidable concierge at the Hotel Smit, a statuesque dame who could parry passes in five languages.
Lake Como came out of the blue, like a line of poetry or a bar of song. I knew very little about it, only that it was a place for the rich. I wasn’t rich. The pasticceria itself—recommended by a cabdriver—seemed lined with slabs of beeswax, glowing in the afternoon light, the air heavy with scent. As the temperature rose, I feared the entire enterprise might liquify and ooze into the lake; but the steady breeze fanning the sweating surfaces cooled them enough to maintain their integrity.
My own integrity could have been questioned, like an actor fleshing out the senselessness of the human condition but lacking stage directions—perhaps the fate of the perpetual wanderer, suitcase always ready, no clear destination in mind, only the impulse to move, and keep moving.
What was I escaping, after all? Or more importantly, where was I escaping?
The waiter appeared, that is to say, first, a tray with drinks appeared, then his small white hands, then his face—ears and shoulders blurred. I could barely move thanks to the space-cake. My muscles felt like Silly Putty. My tongue filled my mouth like a kid glove.
“Problemi?” he asked, his voice a layer of the lake breeze.
“Non sono sicuro,” I confessed. I was sure of nothing.
He leaned over me—with a complex tang of the body, booze and eau de toilette—and set down a bottle filled with a creme liqueur that reminded me of a Giorgio Morandi still life, and two glasses. I wondered if he planned to join me. I would have almost welcomed the company, some back and forth in Italian, my native tongue, a harmless international exchange of ideas. Indeed he disappeared before I could inquire about the bottle’s contents. I poured a glass, raised it and sniffed: no odor whatsoever. What I noticed at this moment was the enormous size of the hand holding the glass, almost as if I had affixed a monstrous prosthetic to my wrist, for comic or sinister purposes. This of course was not the case. I tried the white beverage; it tasted of nothing.
I glanced at the composite woman. Ultimately, the choices we make and where the chips fall may not correspond. Her facial features escaped me. One eye stood out, a small blue orb, but it could have been an earring. I shut my eyes and tried to refocus my mind.
Perhaps it’s true that you can never escape. Not ever. That is to say, you can never escape yourself, even sitting by this dream that was Lake Como, on space-cakes. The truth was I felt like a man trapped in someone else’s story, a sorry figure, remote, detached, unreachable. This could not be my life, I thought, this could not be true, this could not be the present I have constructed for myself.
When I opened my eyes the woman was gone. A thin veil of mist enveloped me. My lungs laboured. I felt submerged. The bottle shimmered on the table. I reached for it, but my heavy hand fell useless at its base. The waiter reappeared at my side.
“Non sono sicuro,” I said. I was sure of nothing.