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An Italian Affair


An Italian Affair
























































































































































  

At breakfast you say good morning to the signora and nod to a gentleman at the table next to yours. You notice he isn't German and wonder about him. He looks remarkably like Bob Dylan did ten years before, only less craggy, with shiny brown curls, a beak-like nose, and watery blue eyes. He is wearing a long soft denim jacket and a tapestry vest and a thick silver bracelet. No one joins him at his table; he seems to be alone.

You're studying the pages you ripped out of your guidebook when the man starts asking the signora some questions about the island in Italian. Curious, you join in and ask her something yourself about the hike up the volcano, never making eye contact with the man. But when the signora leaves, you offer him a look through the guidebook chapter on the island. You speak to him in the third person formal, Lei. He takes the torn papers from your hands.

"You travel light," he observes in Italian, and glances through the pages.

He doesn't seem to read much English, so you take the pages back and explain what you know about the island from your two days' experience. You chat; he asks how long you've been traveling, and when you're leaving, and you tell him you're probably leaving that morning but you still aren't sure, you might want to climb the dormant volcano first. You find out that he is from Paris, but half-Italian, which is why he speaks the language so well. An art teacher. You ask if he teaches in high school, and he says, no, at a university, a professor.

He asks about you, and you say you're a journalist, freelance, you write for women's magazines, general interest, that sort of thing. He says he first guessed by looking at you that you were German, but your accent is good and he can't tell where you're from. You say you're from San Francisco, which you always say instead of America.

"Ahh," he says, "San Francisco deve essere una bella città." It must be a beautiful city. He turns his chair toward you slightly and crosses his legs. "Sei lontana da casa," he says. You're a long way from home. He has slipped into the second person familiar, tu. You're just traveling around, you explain, and one of your Italian friends had recommended Ischia. You like stretching the summer out by being in a place where the water is still warm in late September.

"Anch'io," he says. Me too.

Your brain parts company with your mouth for a moment and you tell him he has a face like Bob Dylan. He seems surprised at what a direct and personal thing that is to say, you American you, and you quickly add "ten years ago," though it's probably closer to five, and he doesn't really look displeased. Amused.

"Wasn't it strange," he says, "that Bob Dylan just played for the pope in Bologna? Has he become a Catholic or what? And what's with the hat?"

"It's always hard to know what religious phase Bob Dylan is in," you say. "But the hat was way too cowboy."

"The day the Stones play 'Sympathy for the Devil' for the pope," he says, "I'll become a papist."

You like his sensibility and can't help giving him a smile before returning to your coffee. After a few minutes he mentions that if in fact you do decide to climb the mountain instead of leaving that morning, he'd be pleased to join you, if you'd like the company. You shrug: Why not. Pompeii can wait.

In a few minutes you meet outside the pensione and climb aboard a crowded bus. You notice that he, like you, has brought along a beach bag. He leans close to you and asks your name. "Laura," you say, with the pretty rolling Italian pronunciation. He tells you his name and you say, in your best schoolbook Italian, that it is a pleasure to meet him. He holds out his hand to shake, making fun of your formality.

The bus takes you to the highest road on the island and you walk another three kilometers until the road turns into a small brushy footpath and reaches the summit, Mount Epomeo. From there, you really know you're on an island, water on all sides, Capri just obscured by the clouds. You sit on volcanic rocks overlooking everything while he smokes an unfiltered cigarette.

"There's no sight I love more than grapevines with the ocean in the distance," he says. You talk about all the islands you've been to, Stromboli and Sardinia, Crete and Santorini, and find you've both climbed to the top of Formentera, the tiny island off Ibiza. You go further afield and talk about other places you've traveled in the world. You tell him one of your best stories already, about the time you interviewed Yasir Arafat in his villa in Baghdad ten days before the Persian Gulf War--how there were giant paintings of a white stallion on one wall and Saddam Hussein on the other, how unbelievably charismatic Arafat was in person, how all his bodyguards with machine guns jumped when they heard the noise your automatic camera made when it rewound the film. You're eager all of a sudden for this Frenchman to think you're something more than a ditzy American who writes for women's magazines. He's curious but unimpressed, which you like, and the conversation shifts from what the British and Americans are still doing in Iraq to French politics, then to Bill Clinton.

"American politics are ridiculous," he says. "Who cares who the president sleeps with? At least Kennedy had better taste in women."

"We are far too puritanical," you agree, "whatever the woman looks like."

At Mitterand's funeral, he explains, his mistress was right there with his wife. Much more civilized. The problem with Americans, he says, is they think a little affair will destroy a marriage. How can they be so claustrophobic? It puts far too much pressure on the marriage. That's what will ruin a marriage.

That, you think, and falling in love with someone else.

A troop of tourists, hiking with boots and walking sticks, arrive at your rock outcropping, so you leave. On the way down the mountain, wandering through little terraced orchards with lemon and fig trees, the professor asks about your marriage. We're just traveling, he says, you can tell me anything. You tell him the story in brief--so in love, married only a year and a half when he left, abruptly, hard to say why, a complicated psychological scenario.

"Did you have time for affairs?" he asks.

"No," you say. "But I think my husband did."

"Well, that is all history. That is all behind you now, yes?"

"Sort of." You continue down the trail for a while, and then you ask him if he is married.

"I'm not talking," he answers, in English.

"That answers the question," you say.

Okay, he says, he's been married for ten years and has two children. You tell him you know better than to ask whether he's had time for any affairs, and he smiles--you're learning fast.

You find yourself wondering whether you would have an affair with a married man, and decide that in the United States, you would not. But you aren't in the United States. You're outside your country, your language, and really, your life. And he--well, he is French. The French are notorious for their extramarital liaisons; as far as you know, it's a way of life. The idea titillates you, but it seems unlikely that you'd have an affair with him anyway. He's too remote, sophisticated, too different from any man you've ever known. You don't even speak the same language. He isn't even flirting with you. He seems to enjoy your company, and that's all, that's nice.

You ask him what a married man is doing traveling by himself on an island in the Mediterranean. He explains that it's understood in his household that, once a year, he needs his solitude. He has to get away from Paris and just sit on an island and far niente, do nothing, so that he can be his Mediterranean self for a while. He needs to be able to relax completely, which is impossible to do in Paris. He is part Italian and part Arab, and he has to spend some time being an Oriental man, living where the days are warmer and slower. It's in his blood.

After you make it down the mountain, you find a place for lunch, which the French professor eats with a precise sense of ritual. You just want a salad, and he says you have what you want, women are always just eating salad, but he's having a real meal. He has a salad, a roast pork panino, and then a coffee, and finally he slowly smokes a cigar. When he stubs out the cigar, he suggests a swim.

You mention a beach you've heard about, the Sorceto, where hot water bubbles up from the rocks. You consult his map and find a bus to take you to the far side of the island, and then you walk down a steep trail to the beach. He leads you, taking your hand, stepping gingerly over slippery wet rocks, past some high boulders to the part of the beach away from all the people. After a long swim, you wade in the hot springs, and then lie down on the pebbles for a nap, stretched out next to him.

"So what do you think?" he asks.

You have no idea what to do with that open-ended question. You think you know what he means, but you aren't sure.

"Bel posto," you answer. Lovely spot.

The two of you lie there quietly, soaking up the sun for a while.

He tries again, more direct this time. "Allora," he says. Now then. "What do you think of me?"

You know the situation has all the makings of an opening, an exciting opportunity, but you just aren't sure, you're somehow scared. You turn the question around, not about to risk anything. "You tell me, professor," you say. "What do you think of me?"

He weighs his words. "Una ragazza piacevole." A pleasant girl, he says, or maybe pleasing, or pleasurable. He makes the word sound like he's just bitten into a ripe peach. "It's a nice coincidence that we met at the pensione, no?" he asks. "We seem to be on the same frequency." He taps his temple. "That's rare."

"Umm." You dig into the pebbles and realize the rocks on the beach aren't warmed from the sun but from inside the earth. The farther you dig down into the rocks, the warmer they are. You lie on your stomach and just when you are drifting off you feel a warm, smooth stone placed lightly on the small of your back and all the desire you thought was dead radiates from that rock throughout your entire body. And then his hand touches you where the rock had been and traces soft patterns all the way down to the very bottom of your spine.

In the evening you find the only restaurant in Forio where Italians are eating, and you talk over pesto like old friends. You ask him what classes he teaches, and he mentions art history and the philosophy of aesthetics, and you tell him how terrible it was in college that your modern art history class was held in the morning. "You fell asleep when the lights went out to watch the slides," he says. You nod. "You're lucky you weren't in my class, cara."

You didn't do so well as it was, you tell him. You knew so little about art in your freshman year that during the first quiz, when you had to choose any work of modern art to describe, you picked Marcel Duchamp's "The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even," because you liked the title.

The professor groans. "There have been whole libraries written about that work," he says, "and still no one really understands it." He asks if you failed.

"It was a disaster." You tell him how you went to the professor and explained that you were at a distinct disadvantage, because almost everyone else in your college grew up in New York or on the East Coast and had been exposed to art, going to the Metropolitan and the MOMA with their parents or on prep school field trips. You grew up in Colorado, and so the only art you knew about was Native American art. You know how to tell a good Navajo rug, though.

"Clever argument, signorina," he says. "And?"

"He gave me another chance. I picked someone easier, Jackson Pollock."

"Ah." The French professor takes a few bites of pesto, and tells you he is interested in Native American art, since his mother was an academic who wrote about native cultures.

You can see the mention of his mother makes him sad. You ask if his mother is still living, and he says she died many years ago. His father died more recently, only a couple of years ago.

"I'm sorry."

"It is a strange thing, to be an orphan--even at this age, even with a family," he says, allowing a glimpse into his personal world. "You always feel a little bit alone."

You notice he is near tears. He covers up by shifting his tone, gesturing to the waiter to bring a coffee. You tell him you're sorry. You say you're lucky that your parents are still alive and healthy and tell him a little about them.

"Are you friends with them?" he asks.

"Yes," you say. "They're wonderful people."

"So were my parents," he says. He stares into his empty espresso cup. "We're both lucky." He takes your hand and holds it until the check comes.

You leave the restaurant and return to the pensione discreetly, at different times, with a plan to meet later. He'd given you his room number. You sit in your room, brushing your hair, vaguely scared. You like him, you feel easy in his company, but you can't just go to his room. You can't even move. You stare at the letter you wrote the night before, spread out on your bedspread, and you pick it up, glance through, crumple it, and throw it in the trash. Then you put your brush down, take your key, and sneak into his room.

He greets you with a bright smile as you sit down on the very edge of his bed. You notice that he is naked under the covers and stare instead at the little wooden cross hung on the wall. You don't know what to do. You aren't prepared for this. All you can think about is what a shame it is that you didn't bring any pretty underwear to the island. You grew up being reminded that you should always wear nice clean underwear in case you have to go to the doctor suddenly, but no one ever said anything about wearing sexy ones in case you run into a French aesthetics professor on an island. You've always been nervous about taking off your clothes anyway. You have a tummy and big thighs and a monumental round ass, although to be fair, there have always been great fans of that ass. You finger the fabric on the edge of the bed.

He opens his arms. "Come here, signorina."

You peel off your sandals and stretch out next to him, fully clothed. You lie like that for a while while he strokes your hair and your cheek and then puts one of his fingers in your mouth. He holds your face and kisses it all over, eyelids and cheeks and temples, and then pats the covers on the bed.

"Vieni," he says, throwing back the sheets to let you in.

You take off your sweater, uncertain, scared, and he reaches up and turns off the light switch. You take off the rest of your clothes and climb under the covers. You like how his body feels, smooth, relaxed, soft, with ropy legs. You press against him and feel his magnetic warmth. He gives you a thousand soft caresses on your back, your ass, your thighs. He slides his hand all the way down your leg and squeezes the arch of your foot, touching your whole body, not just zeroing in on your sexual parts, the way your husband had. You always had the feeling with your husband that he loved you despite your body, and this feels so different.

You will the thought of your husband out of the bed. You feel desired; you feel like your whole being is a sexual organ. You tell him that he has such a sweet touch.

There's a moment of awkwardness when neither of you can quite handle the condom smoothly. "I'm lucky," he says, sighing. "I am the perfect age, to have spent most of my sexual life in that brief period between the Pill and AIDS. But now--" He's at a loss.

"We'll manage."

You cuddle next to him, kissing his temple through his soft hair. You touch him softly until he's hard again, becoming more friendly with the condom, pressing your face close, rubbing him with your cheek and then your mouth.

You guide him inside you, and feel him touch that hungry spot, deep inside; you feel, suddenly, how much you've missed sex. You feel full, and you give him a little squeeze.

After awhile, he reaches over for his box of cigarettes and lights one.

"I am dead," he says. "I am a victim of sex."

He seems so serious you don't know what to think. So you curl up next to him, put one hand lightly on his ribs, and close your eyes, trying to sleep.

In the morning, you get up before he is awake, quietly gather your clothes and put them on, then tiptoe from his room to yours around the open stairway. The eagle-eyed signora in the courtyard below catches you walking where you have no business walking and you realize you'd better leave the pensione that morning.

You shower and dress, putting on the only other shirt and underwear you brought with you. You pack your few things in the day pack and have no idea what will happen today. You think about leaving, taking an early boat off the island, and never seeing him again. If it was just a quick one-night stand--and how could it be anything else?--you want to be the one to leave first.

But there is no going anywhere without coffee and breakfast, no matter what drama is going on, so you decide to face the morning and the signora. You're nervous walking down to the dining room, and relieved to see that there's already a table of boisterous Germans there, and that it's the signora's daughter who is serving breakfast. You sit down and are grateful when the young woman brings you one ceramic pitcher of coffee and another of warm milk, along with a basket of rolls.

You're halfway through a buttered roll when the professor enters the room, wearing a fresh, sea-blue cotton shirt. You stop chewing. The signora's daughter shows the professor to his table, the same one as yesterday, next to yours. "Buon giorno," he says to her. He looks at your table and nods to you. "Buon giorno, signora," he says in the same formal, distant voice. You're cringing inside, certain your face is flushed. He sits down and says nothing while the young woman brings him coffee and clears away some things from the Germans' table. He doesn't so much as glance your way, and you feel something in your stomach go cold. When the signora's daughter goes back to the kitchen, he turns toward your table.

"Did you sleep well, signorina?" he asks. "You left early."

"I slept pretty well," you say, noncommittally. "And you?"

"Very well," he says, his deep voice still full of sex. "I'm hungry."

The older signora comes in with his coffee, and he greets her. The signora doesn't even look your way. As long as she is in the room, the professor doesn't say a word to you.

"And today, my dear?" he asks easily, after the signora leaves. "What is the plan today?"

"I don't know," you say. "I don't think I can stay on at this pensione. The signora saw me coming from your room this morning."

He considers that. "I think she has seen this kind of thing before, on a romantic Mediterranean island."

"I don't feel comfortable," you say. "She thinks I'm a puta."

He sighs. "It's such a charming place."

"I know," you say. "Maybe I'll go to Procida." Your guidebook, you tell him, says that Procida is a nearby tranquil fishing island, and it might be possible to escape the German tourists there.

The professor is game. "Why not Procida?"

After you each go back to your rooms, pay your bills, and retrieve your passports, you take a crowded bus to the port, and then board a boat to Procida. On the boat you take out your disposable camera and snap a shot of the island as you leave, not sure you'll ever return. You turn to the professor. "May I take one of the French aesthetics professor?" you ask, and he nods, inhaling his cigarette, not about to smile for the camera.

The boat lands on Procida, which is charming in its 1950s neorealist Italian movie style, but the beaches are dirty and deserted and the whole place is simply glum. You start feeling guilty that you have taken the professor away from paradise and that you've spent half a day of vacation on crowded buses and a boat, having no idea where you're going. You finally get off the bus and walk toward a pensione listed in the guidebook, asking the locals for directions after it seems like you've walked for miles. At last, you find the pensione, a rundown place with a tropical profusion of plants, but there is no one there except an eleven-year-old girl looking after a baby, so you decide to wait until after lunch to check in. You have to take a bus all the way back to the port to find a restaurant, which ends up having wonderful food, pasta allo scoglio, with mussels, clams, tiny snails, olive oil and parsley, in itself worth the visit, and that puts you back in a cheerful mood. After lunch, the boat back to Ischia seems a lot more appealing than staying on the island.

"Procida," the professor pronounces. "Non ? un gran che." It isn't a big deal. He suggests going back to the same pensione in Forio, which he liked, but you say you really didn't feel comfortable there. You suggest Sant' Angelo instead, and by evening you are back to the whitewashed village with the bright geraniums and fragrant jasmine and oleander. You are hot and tired after another crowded bus ride, but still in fairly good traveling spirits. But after the first hotel you try says it's full, and then the second one does, too, you're defeated. As a last resort you ask if there might be a private room to let somewhere nearby, and the girl at the desk makes a flurry of phone calls. Miraculously, there is a room, with a terrace overlooking the sea, and meals are included at the hotel restaurant. You've found an incredible spot, and it's a good deal. You drop your things in the room and rush down to the beach to jump in.

"Lava tutto," the professor says when his head surfaces. The feeling of the water washes away the whole day.

Afterward, in the room, he arranges his things in tidy piles, his boxes of cigarettes in one spot, his tin of cigars in another. Not sure what to do with yourself, you mention that it's strange to share a room, it's somehow much more intimate than making love. He nods.

"We've made a grand progression in a short time," he says, and then he picks up a big white towel and offers to dry your hair. A little later he thinks you're asleep and he traces his fingers down the curve of your back and then stops. You desperately try to come up with the right verb tenses. Imperfect subjunctive: "If you were to stop touching me," and then present conditional, "I couldn't stand it."

Dinner is on the restaurant terrace, high above the ocean, tiny fishing boats far below. Pino Daniele is playing, southern Italian blues, in the background. There is grilled eggplant and roasted potatoes with rosemary and tomato salad and bruschetta, and that's just to start. Over a piece of lemon-sautéed sole he looks out over the view, the sun sinking red into the ocean, and starts laughing at his luck. "We have found the perfect place," he says.

"Gorgeous," you say in English, and he likes that word, tasting it like wine.

The next day you stretch out on lava rocks away from all the people as the sun washes over you. The professor swims nude and assures you that it is the only way to really enjoy a swim. You take off your swimsuit, dive in, and almost immediately a boat filled with vacationers rounds the corner toward your cove, and you have to hide behind the rocks while the professor, safely back in his shorts, enjoys your predicament.

When you finally come back to your perch he asks if you think he's become more tan in the past two days. There's no discernible difference, but you assure him that he's much more bronze. "Good," he says. "When I return, I want all of the other professors to be jealous."

"They'll be jealous," you say, registering his vanity.

He studies his body. "I could stand to lose a few kilos, too," he says.

The professor is thin, with only a hint of love handles.

"I feel elegant when I am thin," he says, noting your disbelief. "It's more aesthetic."

All this talk about weight suddenly makes you feel self- conscious. "I don't know if that's an absolute aesthetic," you say. "But I guess I could lose a few kilos, too."

He studies your body, as if he were seeing it for the first time. "Yes," he says. "You would be prettier if you were thinner."

That stings. Probably, you think, he really has no desire for you at all. He's just fucking you because there isn't anyone better around. You should just put on your things and leave. You reach for your towel.

But you pause for a second. You realize that if he really didn't desire you, he wouldn't be there. He wouldn't touch you the way he touches you.

"Maybe that's true," you tell him. "But I have a long story with my weight, and if I worry about it, I become neurotic. So I'd rather eat with pleasure and have a few extra kilos."

"Well," he says nonchalantly, "you are a very sportif type. This must be right for you."

You relax and talk lazily about authors and films, Marcel Proust and Marguerite Duras, Martin Scorsese, Guy Debord, and The Night of the Hunter. The names and titles are a shorthand for what you can't express in your incomplete Italian, but it is enough. You are drugged with pleasure lying on the rocks. It seems like you go through cycle after cycle of swimming, drying off, eating, making love, swimming, and drying off again.

The next morning you ask him what you should do that day and he says, "The same thing we did yesterday. In reverse."

You have an espresso down at the caféˇ by the boat taxis and read the Italian newspaper. The professor watches two young teenage girls turning cartwheels in the sand. "Sometimes," he says, "I feel like Humbert Humbert."

You tell him he's terrible, and he says, no, he's just being honest. That's why, he says, Lolita is one of the best books ever written, because it's honest. He says he would never dream of trying to seduce a young girl, but sometimes they remind him of his first love, who changed how he felt about himself, and helped him become a man. He had been a beautiful toddler with golden curls, he says, always receiving praise from strangers. But then his nose started to grow. He remembers how his mother even cried once at how her beautiful boy had developed such a monstrous nose. He felt he was ugly until he met a girl from Norway, just his age, fourteen or fifteen, and they fell in love for a summer, even though they barely spoke the same languages. There will never be anything like the sweetness of that first love, he says, or the sorrow of her leaving when she went back to Norway, knowing they would never see each other again, which they never did. But a few weeks after she left, he received a beautiful card she had made, and when he opened it, all it said was, "I love your nose."

You tell him you think the Norwegian girl was right. He has a magnificent Mediterranean nose.

"Thank you, my dear," he says, in English.

At some point it occurs to you that these four days with the professor are unique, that their particular beauty could never be repeated, and that probably you will never see him again. And you realize you might never have another lover like him, either. His lovemaking is like a long, languorous meal, full of delightful appetizers and side dishes, a variety of simple, exquisite tastes, finished off by an unfiltered cigarette.

"After thirty-six years you decide to take up smoking now?" he asks. You smile and tell him it's all his fault.

"When I get back," you say, "I'm going to have to find a lover like you."

"Inutile," he says, and laughs. Your only hope is to teach someone, he says. Then he becomes more serious, avuncular. "You'll find someone," he says. "All you need is a man who is older than you and younger than me. A professor of literature who speaks Italian. There must be some of them in San Francisco."

"They're everywhere," you say, "like German tourists."

On your last evening before leaving, the weather turns cold, it's fall already. You change from your swimsuit and sarong into the same worn black jeans, black T-shirt, and black sweater that you've been wearing now for days. Your bra is dirty, so you go without, and you haven't brought a belt, so your pants are slipping down. The professor always wears a perfectly pressed, fresh shirt with his jeans. You're a mess, and apologize that you don't have anything nice.

He doesn't seem to care. He looks at you. "You must be cold." He offers you one of the woven scarves he's brought along. You thank him, but tell him you would really prefer the blue one he's wearing, it would look better on you. He says he can see you have the instinct to dress up when you want to and reluctantly unwinds the scarf from his neck, telling you it's his favorite, he got it in Egypt. You like it. It spruces up everything, and secretly wish he would give it to you as a present to remember him by.

Over dinner, he's quiet. He asks you a couple of questions about your husband, what he's like, and you tell him he's extremely intelligent, and just as psychologically complicated. The two always seem to go together.

He says that he himself is not complicated at all. "I'm a simple person," he says. "I like art, I like women, I like the sea, good food, cigars." He unwraps the cellophane on a cigar and lights it. "I like pleasure," he says. He smokes quietly for a moment. "Sometimes," he says, "my wife thinks I'm too simple."

You wonder about his wife. You suppose they must have an arrangement--he is traveling alone, and this is hardly his first affair. Whatever there was between them, you were not the problem.

You tell the professor you've never met an intellectual like him who is so uncomplicated, who seems to have no hidden dark corners in his psyche, though you suspect there are a few he isn't talking about. He's so comfortable with himself, seemingly so content with his life. Unlike many of the talented, intelligent men you've run into, he isn't arrogant on the surface with deep insecurities lurking just beneath. He doesn't seem like he'd ever be threatened by strong, smart women, just amused. He's easily delighted, and relaxing to be around. You're glad at least to have a glimpse of that type of man.

You shift your gaze to the candle at the table, and see it reflected in your glass. "You know what I love?" you say. He looks expectantly. "I love this grappa. It smells like the very essence of grapes, down to the soil."

He watches you. "You know, for an American, you aren't so bad."

You take another little sip. "For a Parisian," you say, "neither are you."

You look out at the sea. You're leaving the next morning, you have to go back to the city you shared with your husband. You're quiet for a while. You ask the professor if he was thinking about school on Tuesday and he says no, he was thinking about you.

"Cara signorina," he says, his only compliment. You dear woman. "In such a short time, you know me better than most people do." That seems surprising; surely such a charming man has a lot of friends. You feel like you scarcely know him at all. Then he chuckles slightly. "You know about my secret life. You are my secret life."

You don't say anything. You just keep looking at your glass.

"Maybe," he says, "we will find each other again sometime."

"I hope so," you say, concentrating on watching the ship lights in the distance. You look back at him. "You really should see San Francisco someday," you say.

He puffs on his cigar and nods.

The next morning is all business. You pack your few things, and give him back his scarf. You exchange addresses, and he writes down the names of an author and a video artist he'd spoken about, Thomas Bernhard and Bill Viola. He disappears for a few minutes, and comes back with a present for you, a little package of salted capers from the island. You take a bus ride to the port, buy your tickets, find a caféˇ with a kiosk and read your separate papers--Le Monde and the International Herald Tribune--in silence. You board the ship to Naples where you practice putting distance between each other.

In Naples, he helps you find the train station and your ticket and then takes you to a very quick, noisy Napolitano lunch.

You have barely finished your insalata caprese--fresh tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, and basil drizzled with olive oil--when he seems anxious to leave. He pays for lunch, and leads you across the street to the train station. He points out the track number and tells you to send him a postcard at Christmas.

Then he abruptly says, "I'm abandoning you here," and kisses you lightly, once on each cheek, ciao, ciao.

"Piacere," you murmur, a pleasure, and he is gone.

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Excerpted from An Italian Affair by Laura Fraser Copyright© 2001 by Laura Fraser. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.