Apr/May 2016 Nonfiction

Giro, Giro, Tondo

by Andrew Bertaina

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

I don't know why we are here, but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.
          —Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Beginning of the End


Wednesday, October 23

I am distracted again today. I've cleared my schedule, put away everything but the computer; my wife is at work; the television is off, and my cell phone is on silent. I'm sitting in a comfortable chair, looking out the window in our living room at frail light mingling with trees. I move to the window, on the street below, leaves rise from the ground and form a rust-colored tornado that drops when the wind dies. The simple dance of the leaves reminds me of a children's game: circling until we all fall down from a plague of laughter.1 I sit again and pull the warm computer into my lap. The images of our trip have fermented long enough; it is time to write about Italy.2


12:30-2:17 P.M.
Persistent computer-related distractions.

My ankles are warm, but no new words crawl across my screen. I think of all the things3 I could tell you as I sift through various stories on MSN—celebrity marriage trouble, ten habits she secretly hates, does he still love you?—no closer to the beginning of an essay or meaning but closer to my own ashes. I sit, trying to connect the disparate events of an afternoon spent in the window of a computer, spinning in circles, falling down, another wasted day in the informational detritus of the 21st century.

Potentially useful information for the reader: I am 28 years old and attend church regularly. The soon-to-be recurring theme of perusing stories on MSN is related to a compulsory checking of e-mail, e-mails, which are typically reminders from admin@viagra to renew my non-existent prescription. (Resist jokes such as: "I'm not going to stand for that" for fear of editorial reprisal.)


MSN Story: Named for a Noun: Trends for Baby Names

My father has brown hair and brown eyes like mine, but he did not name me John Junior. Perhaps he would have named me John Junior if he planned on staying. God created Adam (Hebrew for man) in his image, but he did not name him Yahweh. Perhaps He named him Adam because He knew He was going to leave him.4

I read various essays in hopes of achieving greatness via osmosis. Selected text, The Next American Essay, edited by John D'Agata. Read an essay from 1975 by John McPhee called "Searching for Marvin Gardens," about playing Monopoly and Atlantic City. The essay juxtaposes the imagined Atlantic City of the Monopoly board with the real Atlantic City. We had family game nights when we stayed with my father and his second wife. My father's six children would cram around an old wooden table, Boardwalk and Park Place were lit by the circular lamp that hung by a thin black cord from the popcorn ceiling, casting light on my financial failures. After a few rounds, my father would whisper, "I'll trade you $500 for that orange one." And though it gave him a monopoly, we couldn't resist the lure of goldenrod five hundreds. Perhaps we've been greedy since the Garden, or my father was as persuasive as a snake. And maybe his second wife Carolyn was like Eve and the apple: impossible to resist. I do not remember my father ever losing at Monopoly. His second wife left him.


MSN Story: Was There a Female Dracula: Rumors of the Blood Countess

As a young boy, I was afraid of the dark and Dracula. Each night, I gathered my blankets and stuffed animals and snuck into my brother's room after he'd gone to bed. I fell asleep to the steady rhythm of his breath and the light from the hallway that kept the promise of morning. When I was six, I cried all night because I had spots on my ear drum. My mom did not take me to the doctor until morning because she thought I was crying for fear of Dracula. As a child, I was afraid of dying violently. Now, I am just afraid of dying. If I were 100 percent certain of the afterlife, I do not think I would fear death.

This essay will not be about my parents.


2:17-2:45 P.M.
Some writing gets done.

The traffic hums by on Massachusetts Avenue; two deciduous trees—that could be oaks (I never know the names of trees)—sway in the breeze. Their leaves turn from green to shimmering yellow, flecks of fool's gold in a moss covered stream.5

A palm sways at the Jetson-esque apartment building across the street. Dark windows and convex faux-adobe-looking balconies wrap around its exterior. Smoke pours from a chimney stack on the roof, disappearing into janitorial blue skies. I will not be surprised if the sails lift and the slaves in the galley put their backs into the oars, and the building moves across Massachusetts Avenue as if it were the River Styx.6


MSN Story: Duchovny's Tennis Pro Problem

Presumably the story is not about Mulder's lack of a tour level two-handed cross court backhand. The word "leggy" is used in conjunction with Edit Pakay, said tennis pro/partner-in-affair. I Google Image her, and she's not particularly striking. She has prominent teeth and moppish red-brown hair swept back from a large forehead. I'm disappointed in Edit's failure to measure up with my own fascination with celebrity, coupled with an acute feeling of disgust when I indulge. My father's mistress/second wife was a beautiful woman with blond hair and blue eyes. When I was a pre-teen discovering sex, I fantasized about sleeping with her. I have never read Oedipus. My wife has blond hair and blue eyes.

Read "The Raven," by Barry Lopez, an essay about the differences between crows and ravens. I learn that a raven in flight looks nothing like a crow. I learn that crows are stupid and malicious and die in the desert. The essay is probably about something deeper that I fail to comprehend. And even though Barry Lopez is alive, I cannot ask him what his essay means if I consider myself a post-structuralist, though I could ask him if he believes in hell. This theme may or may not be relevant to this essay. Post-structuralism, that is, not Barry Lopez's views on hell.

Read two essays by David Sedaris in hopes of absorbing wit. Project may or may not have been successful. Problems arise: I am not a middle-aged gay man living in France with spiders; my father did not love music; my mother was not a shopper. I do not speak with a lisp and cannot make jokes about my desire to be an interior decorator instead of playing sports.7

I wonder if I can write a humorous essay. When I am writing what I consider to be a humorous essay, do I try too hard?8 I don't think so, but if the reader thinks I'm trying too hard, even if I'm not, am I then actually trying too hard? Have read briefly in post-structuralism, Derrida, etc., which may be germane to this portion of the essay, but I do not understand post-structuralism or Derrida, except to say I am alive to answer any questions you may have about this essay, though I may not be the most qualified.

Question the relationship between television and depression. Question the relationship between the actual experience of violence and that mediated by television. Question why various media sources are so pervasive when they bring so little joy. Possibility that I am addicted to checking e-mail due to operant conditioning: essentially, we keep checking because the reward (a new interesting message) comes at random intervals rather than at a fixed rate. Thus, since we never know the outcome, we keep checking. Perhaps this has something to do with the persistence of new religions; maybe one of them will have the right message.

Awareness of the irony that above information was researched online. Insidious loop, like Calvin's predestination: If God knows all, then why did He bother putting Adam and Eve in the Garden? He should have just kicked them out to begin with and avoided the disappointment. Perhaps that's why He named him Adam. I am glad that even if my father knew he was going to leave, he still fathered me. Even if it means I have to consider the possibility that no afterlife exists.


2:45 P.M.

Drive towards the student I am tutoring in Potomac, Maryland. The trees along River Road appear vibrantly green as they are elegantly choked by Hedera helix.9

On the drive, I see a small black shape fading into the sky. Because of the essay by Barry Lopez, I know I'm watching a crow wing into blue. In a strictly utilitarian sense, this fact makes his essay the best. I feel the satisfaction Adam must have felt while naming all the animals: each word, a fact. "Crow," he said, pointing to the dark bird whose flight looked nothing like an eagle, and it was so.

I wait for the blue signs of McCain and Palin to appear as I drive past estates in Potomac. The greed of the affluent is not a theme of this essay, just an observation about human nature, perhaps relatable to goldenrod $500 bills and Monopoly.

I pass a boys' soccer field. I quit playing soccer when I was eight because the coach made me play fullback. I wanted to score goals, not help the team by playing defense. I often quit things when they are challenging or do not bring immediate satisfaction. Consideration that the pursuit of the afterlife includes delayed gratification.

I pass a yellow sign warning of deer crossings. My wife and I learned two weekends ago that 60,000 car/deer incidents occur in Michigan each year. Last year, in the half-light of a driving snow, my wife and I stepped past the lifeless body of a six pointed buck—staring at the sky—in front of our parked car. I do not know if I believe in the afterlife, but it doesn't hurt to hope.

Before I ring the doorbell at the palatial Disney-esque house where I'm tutoring, I try to remember if they have a dog. The second kid I tutor has a dog, and it barks and growls at me when I ring the door bell and won't be assuaged for five minutes, and I'm always certain it's sizing up my carotid artery, so I lean away from it.10

I have a rubbing-your-temples contest with Ben, a 15-year-old I'm tutoring, who complains of being tired/overworked/depressed before each of our meetings. We're working through an organization program. I'm trying to drill into him that it's vitally important to utilize (a word I use often) a system to organize the random informational detritus collected in his bag. He thinks he knows everything; he claims the papers stuffed in his bag are representative of a unique personal system of organization.

I say, "Ben, let's actually get something accomplished today," and start sifting through his bag.

"Don't do that," he says, taking his folder away. "Those are in order." I sit back on the couch and rub my temples. I don't have time for this shit, I think. I could be writing an essay. But I don't say anything, which is also relevant to this essay. In the library where we study, the light is always gray. We open our StudyPoint books together, and he claims all the tips are useless. I don't argue. I keep reading the information, hoping he'll start making connections.


3:45-7:30 P.M.

I tutor and forget this essay exists except on a subconscious level, where presumably I am freaking out.


7:30-9:00 P.M.

Talk with my wife briefly about my idea for this essay.

"That sounds really interesting," she says. I must be explaining it wrong.


MSN Story: I'm in Love with Mr. Know it All

This article reminds me of the book by A.J. Jacobs, The Know It All. I recommend this book—especially to men—because it is a series of facts related to Jacobs's quest to read the encyclopedia from A-Z. And most men (generalization duly noted) would rather read about the upbringing of James Garfield in Orange, Ohio, than a book of fiction. Men are like squirrels, storing up facts like nuts for the winter. And I think again of Adam, in a valley between two mountains, the animals teeming at his feet, feeling each one slowly before giving them a name, bringing order to chaos, naming all the animals before language had been created.

The article involves a woman asking for advice about her "genius" boyfriend who dissects their relationship so analytically that the advice seeker feels demeaned. The advice columnist tells the woman that her boyfriend may be a genius, but by belittling her emotions, he's revealing that he is emotionally retarded. The word "retarded" may or may not have been used. My cousin suffered from severe cerebral palsy, (which as a child, I confess, we all thought was retardation, the term being synonymous and less politically incorrect at that age) and was wheelchair-bound for life. Once, when I was 19 and praying, I thought I saw him in the afterlife; he was walking.

Read an essay by Ann Carson from 1987 called "Kinds of Water." The essay details her trip through Europe utilizing a variety of beautiful images juxtaposed with the recursion of the word pilgrims, pointing out her status as enjoyer/invader of foreign places.11


9:00 P.M.-12:50 A.M.

Spent the early evening applying for jobs that I feel guilty for not having while simultaneously feeling guilty for not working on this essay. Reviewed people's Facebook statuses online.

Watch an episode of Jeopardy with my wife. I had experienced a moment of almost pure genius the previous evening, when, during the category "Born," I was able to get the answer to each question within a millisecond. For a moment, the mere word "Minnesota" immediately brought "Charles Shulz" to mind. And I think that some people are cut out to be successful, or geniuses, while others are destined to have one great round of Jeopardy with no one around but their wives, who seem unaware that they were momentarily sitting next to geniuses.

There's an attractive girl posing questions about oysters in the video portion of Jeopardy tonight. She has blond hair and blue eyes, and my wife accuses me of looking at said blond's chest. At one point, the video girl inexplicably says, "fast and dirty" in relation to some oyster trivia. I try to elicit a high five from my wife. The blond may or may not look like my step-mother.12

Use the word fuck three times when my wife asks me to take a break from job applications to lie with her in bed before she goes to sleep.

"I need to write this fucking essay," I say, or something to that effect.

I lose. As we lie in bed together, my wife says of the blond on Jeopardy,

"Admit it, you wanted to bone her."

"I'm married. Women are like glass figurines. Look but don't touch."

Finish putting together applications after midnight. Do not persist in writing, reason: fear of failure.

While working on applications have a brief debate about whether or not to put an apostrophe into the word Bachelor's (Bachelors) or not. Perused various websites, Western Michigan firmly believes in the apostrophe in conjunction with your Bachelor's degree vs. a Bachelors degree, non-possessive. The consensus elsewhere was pretty much to avoid the problem by using Bachelor of Arts.


MSN Story: Do Pretty People Make More Money?

I do not click on this item, but I recently read an article that said tall men tend to be CEOs. I am six feet tall, which I wish were relevant to the topic of this essay.13


MSN Story: More Money; Better Sex?

I don't have to read this article either, and the question mark seems like it should be an exclamation point. Extra money = extra time = extra sex.14


Thursday, October 24
10 A.M.-1:13 P.M.

A new day outside the window—a light breeze stirring trees, cigarette butts, the outline of leaves, dark in cement. I work out almost every day. I'm not sure why, it's compulsory at this point. You're supposed to be compulsory with prayer as well. I go to the gym more often than I pray, which complicates my thoughts about the afterlife.

Is a riddle solved by the fact that I survive forever? (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus)

I think about this essay while I'm swimming laps. I think about how I've been writing about Facebook and Google, that we're supposed to avoid such demarcations to make our writing timeless , and that you'd rather be hearing15 or how grand the last few American Chestnuts along the river in Michigan looked, but maybe you don't mind reading about what it's like to be in America in the 21st century where vast amounts of information and distractions inundate us, and we're constantly required to make value judgments about them, connect them, ignore them, embrace them, make gods of them, and you understand that everything I write/think is mitigated by these sources, that until a few years ago I wouldn't be able to find the origins of 100 different faiths in five minutes and how diffuse and relative this makes everything and how easy it is to be distracted by all these stimuli and how often I feel guilty that I'm not doing something more productive than sifting through stories about celebrity lives, and that I have nothing amidst all these conflicting sources of information, and I'm not sure about "Ring around the Rosie" or Caligula's sex life and neither is anyone else, and this lack of knowledge amidst a sea of facts is deeply troubling, but I should stop now, because more has been said by others who are more intelligent.16


MSN Story: Can't Miss Fall Reads

I read the list of books until I get to the name Anita Shreve. Anita Shreve? I discover that she won the O. Henry Prize in 1976. Perhaps I've misjudged her as non-literary all these years. I only discover her O. Henry Prize later though, after I've already consigned the MSN book list to the depths of Dante's Inferno.17

I like the idea of purgatory: a middling place where you are waiting for something to change. I call it life or a fall afternoon.


1:13 P.M.

Right as I'm about to start making concrete connections in the essay, the exterminator shows up because we've seen two roaches and mice droppings. The exterminator puts down poison to kill the roaches and mice that we pay $1600 a month to house. (Briefly debate putting a footnote about roaches at least chipping in for rent but decide against it due to continued fear of editorial reprisal.) He says, "How long ago did we service you?"

At the time, it didn't sound sexual. I told him that we hadn't seen a mouse in a few months and hadn't spotted a roach for two months.

"It wasn't very long ago, maybe a few weeks," he says.

"Okay," I say, because it's not worth arguing over.

"Just let things run their course" he says. "When they're poisoned, they're more likely to step into one of those snap traps. You might get lucky."

I used a broom to pull a mouse from beneath our refrigerator last March and would not consider that lucky. I'd prefer that the mice wander into a neighbor's wall and die peacefully. In a strange way, the deer and the mouse remind me of each other: two dead things but the same set of empty open eyes, more striking than their living counterparts. Their unblinking stares are an ocean, which captures the world or its absence.18


3:57 P.M.

Read a postmodern essay by David Shields that was comprised of a collection of bumper stickers. Though it might not be germane to this essay, my favorite is, "You are loved."

A Michigander has a 1/78 chance in being in a car-deer accident this year. The American chestnut tree was destroyed by an invasive Asian bark fungus Cryphonectria parasitica. James Garfield's sexual orientation was hetero. Moses parted the Red Sea, but he died before he reached the Promised Land. Adam and Eve had two sons. I am 5'11." Two percent of deer/car incidents result in fatalities. James Garfield was buried in Cleveland and presumably believed in the afterlife. The Promised Land was already occupied, so the Jewish people destroyed the tribes of the Canaanites. There were 1.5 million deer/car incidents in 2007. If I take the Bible literally, we are all the result of incest.

These are the facts my friend, and they overwhelm me.


MSN Story: Ten Traits That Help Skinny People Keep Their Physique

I resist the urge to check, but I'm assuming number one was a fast metabolism.19


4:00 P.M.-12:00 A.M.
Briefly describe the topic of this essay to friends.

"That sounds like it will be really funny." Confirmation that I must be explaining the project wrong.

Pick up my wife from the Metro. As we're driving home on Massachusetts Avenue, she screams. A buck flashes across the headlights. I do not know the chances that I will hit a deer in Washington, D.C. The difference between a deer and a human is that a deer will resist dying, but it cannot conceive of death. Since Adam named them, deer have not worried about the possibility of an afterlife.20

I lie next to my wife in bed as she sleeps. Her arm rests across my chest, and she starts to grind her jaw. I slide my hands on her smooth face and massage gently until her jaws relax. I lie next to her for a moment as the night air slips through the window. In the stillness of the dark, when all my own selfish thoughts have been quieted, and I am given time to consider her sleeping form; I realize that I have married pretty fucking well. Sometimes I think that we should have sex more often because one day we will be old, and if an afterlife exists, I don't know if it will include sex.

Read an essay from 1985 called "Erato Love Poetry" by Theresa Cha. The essay is comprised of sections taken from her book. The essay is filled with strange white spaces on each page; it is about dislocation, and Jesus Christ, and Demeter. It is about famous women in history like Joan of Arc, and their struggles with society. Theresa Cha was murdered one week after she published her first novel. I do not know if there is an afterlife, but it seems like something to hope for.21


Friday, October 25
9:00 A.M.

As I drive my wife to work, I ask her questions. "What are those?" I say, pointing to a tree with almond shaped leaves.

"Honey locusts," she says. "Why do you ask?"

I asked for the purposes of this essay because you, reader, prefer to read specifics rather than generalities. Driving home—shredded plastic cups, bare tree limbs, long swaths of telephone wires, everyone listening to their iPod and wearing black. In front of the apartment, a tree, whose name I should know, with an envelope of leather citrine-colored leaves. Reflection on the fact that I'm glad I wasn't the first human being or every type of tree would just be named "tree."

Panic on the way home when thinking of this essay. Decide I must have someone read it to make sure it is not terrible. I've taken to putting my dishes on our table for fear the roaches and mice will climb into the sink if I put them there. Spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about something petty that upset me. Wonder if it makes me petty to spend time thinking about something I perceived as petty. Probably not relevant to the topic of this essay except to say that I go to the gym more often than I pray.


10:10 A.M.

Drink coffee. According to an article, I have three hours of increased mental acuity while the caffeine is stimulating my brain.22 Perhaps I'll be able to make this all connect, ignore various media sources and order the synapses firing in my brain.22


10:20 A.M.-1:30 P.M.



2:55 P.M.

Persistent worries about the essay. Fear that added footnotes are blowing up essay from the inside like a balloon ready to pop. Remove footnotes.


3:03 P.M.

Tried to microwave a metal cup with a plastic handle. Ignored burning smell for a long time. Recurrent theme of laziness/possible stupidity of author.


3:37 P.M.

On the essay/life: brief feelings of euphoria followed by crippling doubt.


4:12 P.M.

"Don't piss off your reader."


4:37 P.M.

I leave to pick up my wife at work. My notebook is in the front seat. I move my notebook and pen to the back seat as she opens the passenger side door. The pen slips and leaves a mark on the seat. She looks exhausted and knows she'll eventually be the one to clean the mark due to aforementioned laziness/selfishness of the narrator.

"Why did you do that?" she asks.

"Because I don't love you." Said in joking tone but clearly used as deflective mechanism related to earlier mistake with cup and related to a desire to disassociate from inattentiveness/possible stupidity. "It's postmodern meta-fiction. I'm going to keep writing on the seat. Everyone who wants to read this essay will have to come to our car."

"Please stop writing on the seat."


4:58 P.M.

Through the glass of the car window—children swinging from monkey bars, gray light, an elm that hasn't had its branches trimmed, a smattering of yellow and brown leaves rotting in the grass. An older couple—mid-70s—shuffles by and gets into their car. The old man immediately backs into our parked car and remains firmly ensconced on the front bumper for at least six seconds. I continue reading as they drive away, related to continued passivity/inattentiveness/guilt about speaking to elderly/feeling genuinely embarrassed for them in a way that is embarrassing for me. Knowledge that I've hit a bumper or two in my day.


October 25-Present
Add/subtract footnotes. Write/Rewrite Portions.

Read a postmodern essay called "The Theory and Practice of Postmodernism: A Manifesto." The essay is about David Antin and his wife getting a mattress. No punctuation. No point beyond the mattress. This essay has punctuation but no mattresses. Question as to whether the essay makes sense. Question as to whether disparate connections made by author have worked for the reader. Question as to whether ending will be understood.


The ending to an essay that up until now has been in the footnotes

My wife, my sister, her husband, and I spent the day in Venice on the Grand Canal, taking in the sight of its decadent decay—palatial Byzantine and Gothic architecture, bottom floors invaded by water, moss covered steps, facades blackened by the exhaust of boats. The four of us face each other on the train ride back to Bologna as small towns nestled in the hills go dim then dark. My sister's new husband starts a conversation about religion. He is more conservative and analytical than I and believes that the postmodern world is invading Christian thought and corrupting core values. There is so much to think about. I do not know what to believe.

We sit on the train waiting for the conductor to check our tickets, while my wife and brother-in-law debate facts and name the wheat and the chaff. I listen but do not say a word. I think back to earlier in the trip, when my wife and I were in the picturesque towns of the Cinque Terre, far away from the distractions of the modern world, more in love with one another than I can remember. In Vernazza, the small fishing boats bobbed gently in the bay, and the lights of the city lay across the harbor like a lover's silky slip, and the combination of dark water, small foreign towns, and being stranded from even language made us feel gloriously alone. When we left, the tracks wandered through hills striped by vineyards and into mountain tunnels that opened to views of the Ligurian Sea, and the whole ride my wife took pictures while I read a book about the founding of Rome, and no one bothered to check our tickets or ask us any questions to make sure we belonged, and we still arrived safely, in the arms of some far away heavenly city. Listen closely to the churning of the wheels, to the train's thumping engine beneath your feet, watch the waves settle into the shore, they are all one, listen to all these sounds as we travel together to the same city. You are loved.


1The interpretation of "Ring around the Rosie" as a plague song is highly suspect, said theory not arising until 1951, almost 300 years after the initial outbreak in 1665. Thus, the plague theory of "Ring around the Rosie" is not a fact, but merely an example of the human need to bring order to the seemingly random. In Italian, the song goes, Giro giro tondo, casca il mondo, casca la terra; tutti giù per terra.

2My wife and I sat at a sandwich shop in the airport, practicing important Italian phrases from dueling books. The phrases define us as outsiders: Dove il bano? Non parlo Italiano. Parla Inglese? The coffee steams as we lean over a map of Florence. I'm finally engaged in planning the trip now that we're hours away from being in a foreign country. "We'll go there," I say, pointing to the Piazzale Michelangelo, with its incredible view of Florence and its chintzy copy of David, making decisions almost instantly, as if I were created for this.

3The gigantic cupola of the Duomo in Florence, the façade—striped by green, red, and white bands of marble, flocks of pigeons in squares of light, red tile roofs, the Boboli gardens—strewn with white pebbles, lined with cypress trees, and statues, the first sweet taste of gelato, my wife's eyes—a piercing blue—arguing Christian doctrine with my sister's Italian husband over my first-ever cup of coffee.

4In the Accademia, when I first saw the David by Michelangelo I was stunned, the 17-foot marble statue is the closest I have seen an artist get to achieving the work of God. The marble statue stands proudly in the transept of a church-like building, lit by natural light on three sides. He is beautiful. David is 504 years old. Adam lived to 923. Only one outlived his creator, which shows the difference between man and God.

5I got contacts when I was 14 years old. By then, I could not see the whiteboard from the first row. My grades were suffering, and I was somewhere between intelligent and very intelligent in my modest Northern California high school. After I got the contacts, I was amazed that trees had individual leaves. Everything suddenly appeared so beautiful. It was as if I were in a foreign country, noticing every small gesture that passes in a familiar place—an old woman beating against a closing bus door, fat pigeons skittering beneath park benches, bells tolling in the distance, laundry hanging between houses, a cold steady rain falling in a field of white flowers.

6In Roman mythology, the River Styx runs around the underworld nine times, and every person must cross it to enter the afterlife. Fear of someone writing, in the American Protestant mythology...

7At the end of our trip, my wife and I had an argument with my sister and her husband over David Sedaris's possibilities in the afterlife. My sister's husband does not believe you can love God and men.

8My wife and I boarded our dirt cheap flight on Iberian Airlines and the first stewardess says, "Hola," and I look blankly back at her as though she were speaking a foreign language.

9English Ivy: As the ivy grows, it slowly reduces the host tree to a shell, taking away its sunlight. In fall, if the ivy vines are in full light, they grow small pale yellow flowers. There is something in this that reminds me of Venice: the salty water that erodes decadent buildings, the fragility of life, the invaders and the invaded.

10In Vernazza, the cats line the streets like flowers: a tabby sleeps in a red planter, six-feet off the ground, a black and white cat eats fish from a silver can, a one-eyed grey purrs in front of the gelateria. In the Cinque Terre region, we drink the local dry white and take hundreds of photos of the picturesque towns tucked into harbors, and beyond, the great unknowable sea that one day perhaps flooded the earth.

11My sister married an Italian Protestant. The Catholic Church has long made outcasts of them in Italy. When we were with Davide, every time we pointed out a beautiful monument from our guidebooks he would find something that reminded him of persecution. "For you as a tourist, all the sites are beautiful. For us, they are covered in blood. Do you hear the bells? For us, it's a reminder. We are here. We are here." When we were away from my sister and her husband, we were outsiders because we could not speak the language. When we were with them, we were outsiders because we could never understand. I liked it best when we were alone, no language or people to distract us, watching the tide go in and out of the harbors where little cities hid their boats, and one could imagine that heaven exists.

12The emperor of Rome, Caligula, may or may not have had an incestuous relationship with his three sisters: Aggrippina, Drusilla, and Julia. Six historians have written accounts of Caligula's reign: Josephus, Suetonius, and Dio support the incest claim, while Tacitus, Seneca, and Philo made no mention of the rumor. And thus, we're still playing "Ring Around the Rosies" with facts 2,000 years later. I do not know if the Duomo was built by Brunelleschi or Michelangelo, but I know that it is breathtaking.

13Our trip cost $3,000, which is about half of the paltry sum I've made in the last year. I do not collect facts and perhaps these things may or may not be related. And, okay, I'm probably closer to 5'11." Large sums of money and people who can build things make me uncomfortable, which is perhaps why I was so impressed by Michelangelo.

14We lie on the bed in Vernazza, the sunlight on our feet, lazy after sex. I run my hand through her blond hair that catches and holds light, while listening to tolling bells and the sound of voices lifted in prayer on the street below. We do not understand what they are saying. The villagers are throwing red flower petals in the street. "This is so beautiful," I say, and wrap my arms around her in our own little world.

15How brown the Tiber looks in August in Rome, from the roof of Castel San Angelo.

16It is hot in Rome. All the touring groups in the Forum and on Palatine Hill are hiding in the shade. I've read a book about the history of Rome, and I want to see the house of Caesar Augustus. My wife tells me that it is too hot, and the line is too long. And I relent, so we sit in the shade passing a loaf of bread and cheese back and forth in the shade of silver leafed olive trees. And I think about how I'll see the house next time, in some other life. I do not think I believe in reincarnation.

17Dante believed in the afterlife. In the ninth level of Hell, the souls are imprisoned in ice up to their necks. In Rome, we go to the church of the Capuchin crypt. In several small chapels, with only dim light seeping through cracks in the wall above, we see the bones of 4,000 friars decorating the walls in artistic formations. Clavicles and tibias, skulls and fingers, reminding the viewer of what lies beneath skin. A plaque in one of the chapels reads, "What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be."

18Though most people associate the eyes as the window to the soul with the Bible, a variant is attributable to the great Roman orator Cicero. Cicero is considered to be the first man to perfect the essay. He delivered essays from the Rostrum with increasing fervor when he feared the Republic was becoming an empire. Cicero was killed by the order of Marc Antony in 43 B.C. His head was displayed on the Rostrum. "These are the facts my friend, and I have much faith in them." Cicero.

19In the third circle of hell, Cerberus guards the gluttons who are forced to eat mud. After a few days, my wife got sick from all the Italian food, and I sat in large restaurants that overlooked the sea, eating both of our meals as light settled on the water.

20The Romans believed in a version of hell called Tartarus, where the Furies punished you until your debt to society was paid. They did not believe in eternal damnation.

21In Roman mythology, Persephone sometimes sent a person back across the River Styx if they were unjustly murdered. In Rome, the statue of Giordano Bruno stands cloaked and scowling at the Vatican. He believed in the plurality of worlds, and that the devil would be saved. He was burned at the stake in 1600. Though his statue may glare at the Vatican for time in-memoriam, I do not believe in Persephone.

22In Rome, we go to San Clemente: a Christian church built on the foundation of an ancient pagan mystery religion. The two are forever intertwined, one church built on the foundation of the other. We wander the Republican era aqueduct that runs beneath the foundations of all the buildings, the living water flowing over broken stones. We step out of the church into the brick courtyard, and the rain has stopped, and the sunlight is near blinding. I love Rome. The Roman Pagan religion has a web site, and they believe in the afterlife. Their place in heaven is debatable but that's true for us all.


Previous Piece Next Piece