Jul/Aug 2017 Nonfiction

On 35

by Andrew Bertaina

Image courtesy of the British Library Photostream

I have a romantic temperament, which means I find no greater disappointment in life than myself—my dreams and ambitions unravel like thread as the years pass. I was going to be a professional basketball player, and I played for thousands of hours, trying to achieve the goal. I was going to be an excellent spouse, a traveler of the world, a counselor, and then a writer. That I am none of these things is largely the fault of my own, though sometimes I'll blame the gulf between my dreams and reality on the overenthusiastic parenting and teaching of the 80s and early 90s, and the adults who insisted you could be anything in the world if you set your mind to it. I could have set my mind to being a physicist from age 12, and I'd still have not reached it because I am God-awful at math. And in life, I cannot be excellent, only myself: a flawed being who spins out different versions of the self like a diamond refracting light.

That said, I am not an abject failure. I have several pleasing characteristics, for which, if I am lazy, I may be thankful. I am, by most modern conventional standards of the day, still an attractive individual. My nose is aquiline, Roman, and I have fairly deep and expressive brown eyes. My face is a bit too long, but I keep my hair short so as not to accentuate that fact. Women, on separate occasions, have complimented my full lips, expressive eyes, hair, and the shape of my eyebrows. No one has said anything about my ears, which may be sub-standard. This is not to say that I am unusually attractive because I am not. In fact, my relative attractiveness is a virtual non-sequitur when it comes to defining who I am. I had virtually nothing to do with shape or symmetry of my face, the depth of my eyes, or slant of my nose. My facial features and hair were largely determined at birth by genetics. I deserve some credit for my waist size because I have eaten carrots rambunctiously for decades, and I visit the gym regularly. Attractiveness, if one is intellectually rigorous, is not particularly laudable, nor a salve for my disappointment. One might as well compliment a turtle for having a shell.

I am, however, quite good at pleasing other people. I'm a good conversationalist, capable of moving between politics, art, the environment, and interpersonal relationships with ease. I am generally well-liked and nice to be around because I laugh often and listen intently. Perhaps, then, I should be proud of my ability to please. And yet, I can't take much credit for my nature because my overriding disposition to the world is one of desperately wanting to be liked. Thus, I engage in all sorts of contortions in thought, form, and spirt, all in order to achieve that goal—one moment a Christian, the next an atheist, a teetotaler and a binge drinker, a lover of sex and then abstinence, a believer in literature, movies, and a denier of art's possibility to change. These various costumes are often taken on and off more rapidly than those in a play, and though it's often to make others comfortable and happy, in doing so, I'm really pleasing myself.

I am athletic after a sort, capable of fielding sharply hit grounders and firing them across the infield with ease. I'm fairly fast and have always been able to shoot a basketball well. Unfortunately, none of my athletic talents come within miles of world-class, which might make those talents middling at best. Besides which, I have nothing but genetics and a proclivity for playing video games in my youth to thank for my excellent hand-eye coordination. I do not mean to be immodest. I am excellent at my time's tables and good at remembering numbers. This does not, unfortunately, put me on par with Mother Theresa or Sir Isaac Newton.

What am I, then, after 35 confusing years on the planet, besides skin stretched taut over bones?

I have developed one useful skill, I suppose, which is a sense of the aesthetics, an eye for the beautiful: the way that a tree, mid-winter, looks like a hand, and the English ivy growing up its limbs like a great green glove. I often spot the exact angle at which the window catches deep pockets of the sky, shades of blue and arcs of light. I can identify the difference between various styles of prose and elucidate the efficacy of an author's voice or its shortcomings, the complexities of character and narrative, which make an authorial move or character's decision pleasing in its symmetry. I can pick apart movies, actor's performances, and debate with intelligence the veracity of an earned ending. I am given to asking for silence at times with people I love, so that we can inhabit a moment: purple wisteria climbing a stone wall, a field of wildflowers bending in the wind, skeins of light on sheaths of water, the water reflecting the sky, the trees, and if we listen closely as we look, the sound of birds in the thrush.

This is not to say my sense of aesthetics is unerring, but merely that it is the one thing I have come by honestly, my sense of the beautiful. Of course, perhaps none of the above is true. My sense of the beauty in narrative symmetry or excellent prose is not without repercussion. I received those ideas through years of schooling, and it's entirely possible those ideas are wrong, and certainly true that the ideas are skewed towards my own educational path. A person gathers so little knowledge in the space of one lifetime, who am I to proclaim my sense of aesthetics has been keenly developed? Particularly when tastes evolve as we age, like clouds taking new shapes across the sky.

I can say with certainty then, only that I enjoy travel and good books. And, in truth, neither of these pleasures are without problems. Enjoying travel is a love of the novelty, and novelty is the crutch of the lazy, an inability to experience the mundane as sacred. As for the books, well, as I've already said, I love what I love, and perhaps that's all any person can say. So let me tell you then of an afternoon when I was 26, staying at a small hotel in Florence, with my wife when we were happier.

I opened the old window from our hotel room overlooking the San Lorenzo Market. My shirt was off, and I stood there in my underwear, gathering in the morning as my wife implored me to close it. Below me, a collection of wooden carts were filling up the cobblestone streets, where soon tourists and Italians would pick through mountains of shoes, purses, belts—a kaleidoscope of color. To my left, looming over the tableaux, was the San Lorenzo Basilica, a church first built in 323 AD. Pigeons, iridescent-headed, bobbed and weaved like boxers on the steps. Brunelleschi and Michelangelo had a hand in the church, and the only nice thing a romantic failure like myself can say of Michelangelo is that eventually he died and made the rest of us stop feeling bad for how little we've accomplished.

For a minute or so, cool morning air flowed through the arched window, and I gathered in the moment, which is all we have in the end. The sun was warm on my skin, and the people were scattered like dust in the courtyard, and then it was gone. And off we went into the rush of the day, the small medieval streets of Florence, suddenly breaking open into a square full of light and magnificent stone statues, fountains of water, and tourists everywhere eating gelato and resting on sun-warmed stones and benches like cats. It was the day I first saw the David, the most magnificent work of creation I've ever seen, the green marble statue, somehow bigger in real life than one expects, the ribs and calves perfectly shaped.

I stood for a while in the Academia, staring at the height of human creation. Until the crowd around me grew too great, my view temporarily obscured. And I washed out into the side corridors where other remains of statues lay on tables—stray elbows, heads without ears, fragments of fingers. And I felt a peculiar sense of being let down after seeing the David, amongst these small statues, which, if one is honest, have far more to do with my life and history than a statue gazed at by thousands. And I had a moment of recognition, all the years later: I am but a stray elbow, a portion of the upper ear, the remains of a pinkie finger, lying in a room off to the side, signifying nothing but what might have been.


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