Jason Mashak – Prague Metro, 2 June 2009

Prague Metro, 2 June 2009
by Jason Mashak

Someone shit atop the escalator
At Mustek metro – it’s caught
Where the stairs go under

Americans would be appalled, put out to
Put up police tape and launch
Physical inquiries

Czechs just try not to step in it
And move along, accepting
The world is sometimes dirty.

Mary Meriam – Mountain Town

Mountain Town
by Mary Meriam

(Sonnet for Susan de Sola)

Dear morning moon above
                                                            the crumbling stairs
a precious book
                                          a landing where I raise
my eyes to see you,
                                                  make me understand
the steps to take to you
                                                            here in the trees
the tiny castle built
                                                                  of old gray stone
the stairs so steep and cracked
                                                                          the day so young
the doors still locked         I wait
                                                                  I breathe
                                                                                      I find
the shadow of the biggest tree
                                                                      for shade.
Another trip,
                                                                  across the morning sky
a jet drags two thin streams
                                                                          of ghostly cloud
a path I think you take
                                                              so far above me.
Inevitable flower blooms
naked, pink, and tall:
                                                            one Naked Lady.
I read and borrow
                                                    borrow, read

Bryan R. Monte – The Exiled King

The Exiled King
By Bryan R. Monte

Oscar Wilde (1854 -1900)

The innocent always suffer
And we are all innocent
Until we are found out.

Wilde to Esterhazy, 1898

In my black cape and top hat
I am a shade in this luminous city
A vagabond, a poseur living off old stories.
I must wait here until they give me up
And scratch away like some great ape
The salve’s no success, the rash persists
My ear is near to bursting!
I sit and sip my absinthe
And wait for it to take effect
To unwind the wound that’s wound
Its way deep inside my brain.
I am Sebastian Melmoth. I am the Happy Prince.
I am the tall, shabby man with an upturned collar
Who stands outside the pastry shop biting his fingers
Then feeds the birds the bread he has begged.
They call to me and their mates as they circle
The bronze general along the boulevard
On whose great green shoulders and hat
They leave their merry tribute.

It was not long ago people paid dearly to see me
In another country, in such a public place
They said I carried a lily
Through the square at Piccadilly
Soon all London was ablaze with my bright phrases
Either those drapes go or I go
Everyday I find it harder to live up to my blue china
I can resist everything except temptation.

The bitter truth sugared with a great deal of wit
Guaranteed my entrée into polite society and the literati
I became the new Congreve with plays on two stages
An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest
Balfour and the Prince of Wales bragged of my acquaintance
Whilst others crowded around in nervous amusement
Trying to catch my infectious conversation.
The milkman and the postman even bought my picture
And asked mother if she were any relation!

It was the same when I made my New York debut
While I waited the night in ship’s quarantine
Reporters came out of the sea to meet me
Their pens still dripping with brine
I met them in a great green coat trimmed with otter
A white shirt with a wide Byronic lapel
A sky blue mariners tie, purple knee breeches
And black patent leather shoes
I was exotic, I was fantastic
I was everything they had hoped I would be.
I quickly discovered my greatest collegiate defence
That dress is the weapon to disarm one’s audience.

At Customs they asked if I had anything to declare
And I replied: Only my genius, and then I was off
On my year-long, transcontinental tour
New York, Boston, Halifax, Buffalo, Chicago
Omaha, Topeka, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and back
To lecture on Dress, The House Beautiful, and The English Renaissance.
I saw the condemned man in Leavenworth reading Dante
Silver miners in Leadville open a vein in my honour
And at Harvard, 60 boys dressed as Whistler
White flowing hair and Bunthorne’s great hat
Limping languidly in procession, carrying sunflowers
These are the kind of compliments mediocrity pays greatness
You should have heard their sighs of distress
As I rose to the stage in plain evening dress.

Then followed the lilied receptions in great mansions
The writers, reporters, publishers and politicians
Falling over each other or the Japanese screens
That cluttered dark rooms grey with incense
The curtains drawn against the afternoon sun
In the gaslight the guests looked absolutely grotesque
While I in my ermine looked fantastic
At Blanche Roosevelt’s Count Chiero read fortunes
From hands thrust anonymously through silk curtains
She looked at mine for a moment and said:
The left hand, the hand of a king
The right, a king who sends himself into exile

I left the party without a word.

Yes, I was the Happy Prince
Who stood as the general in the town square
And bid the young swallow strip me bare
My rubied sword, my sapphire eyes, my gold leaf coat
To feed the feverish boy oranges
To clothe the tattered match girl
To warm the two boys under the bridge
Shivering in each others arms, who dared not speak
For this I stripped myself dull and grey.

For half an hour I stood
In the grey November rain
On the centre platform
At Clapham Junction
Handcuffed and in convict dress
Surrounded by a jeering mob
Whose numbers swelled
With each arriving train.

And when winter came
Blind, exposed and defenceless
My heart cracked from the cold
Indifference of those I’d clothed and fed
John Donoghue, I found you on a lecture stop
In a bare room at the top of an enormous building
Starving upon a radish and a crust of bread
Who praised your statue of young Sophocles to the press?
Who obtained the commissions for your studio in Paris?

And Monsieur Gide, who fancies himself a Uranian
Won’t even sit with me in the public café
Because in my company he loses the habit of thinking
Even mother’s friends turn away. Last week
The Contessa de Brémont at the Spanish Café
Put up her fan so I could not approach
But next morning, alone, on the bateaux moches
To Saint Cloud she was all apologies
Saying she couldn’t sleep the night
She asked why I no longer write.
I looked out into the brown water
That should have been blue and said:
I wrote when I did not know life
And now that I do, I have nothing more to say

Once the boat reached the shore, she quickly walked away

And you, George Alexander, grinning idiotically
As you passed me on your silver bicycle by the sea
I made you rich from the receipts from my plays
Now you have no time to stop these days.
Tell me George, when they sacked my house
Whilst I lay in prison, how much
Did my presentation volumes bring?
The ones by Hugo, Swinburne and Whitman
The drawings by Burne-Jones, Whistler and Simeon?
My antique Thomas Carlyle writing desk
Surely these were sufficient to pay my debts
But these were the least of my treasures.

Where are my children, Cyril and Vivian?
From whom I created the Happy Prince?
Shall I ever see them again? They have a new name
What is it? Holland, I think, given by my dead wife
To conceal them from the modern angels of death – the press
Though she could not hide herself as well.
In the foothills of Genoa there is a simple stone
Constance Mary, daughter of Harold Lloyd, Q.C.
There’s not even the slightest mention of me.

And where is the young swallow
I bid strip me of all my riches?
Will he not kiss me once before I die?
My dear Bosie, my beautiful boy from Magdalen
Whose boxing, bullying father broke me
Will you not pay my legal fees as promised
Now that you have your £20,000 inheritance?
Did you not enjoy our villa in Naples?
Do you not love me more than your horses?
Now we can afford that white house on Corfu
Where we swam in the bay with the bronzed fisherboys
But you’re never coming back, are you?

They have all deserted me except two
My dear Robbie Ross who waited for hours
In a long, dark corridor as I passed
From prison to Bankruptcy Court
So that he could silently tip his hat
Men have gone to heaven for smaller things then that.
And Frank Harris who nightly sits by my bed
My guide through the tremors and coughs
Of the sulphureous underworld
There are two types of nurses in this world
This one must give me over to the boatman.

And when winter came, the town’s councillors took me down
And melted my grey form in a furnace
To make a memorial to themselves from my metal
My leaden heart they could not render.
On his iron stand in the twilight
The general slowly wades into the night
Shadows erasing his heavy boots, large hands
Fierce eyes and scornful mouth
Until nothing of his visage is left
But darkness, darkness under the hat.

Sarah Sutro – Pine Trees in Snow

Pine Trees in Snow
by Sarah Sutro

I lie in the heat
of a Bangkok night: dreaming
quiet woods,
the swoosh of skis marking freshness.
travelling in the far field,
cold, bright sun, sharp
scent of pine needles
and new snow.

    splashes in the pool,
    sunlight on palm leaves,
    outside the open window.

and the wide arc
of our life
gets wider still –
following the edge of the
field and the light cresting
on the edge of the hill.

Alison Leigh Brown – Lavender

by Alison Leigh Brown

Emily was not seduced by the perfume encoded on brightly coloured ads; they felt like sandpaper on her wrists, didn’t smell real. Her high school friends swooned and dreamt of lead roles in those glossy romances. But Emily just liked lavender—the colour, the scent. She remained faithful to it. Her friends laughed—they called her quaint. They said, “Emily’s crazy for lavender.” It didn’t bother her. She liked what she liked.

A woman now, she’s planted a border of the bristly stalks around her front garden. Saying good-bye to dinner guests, she fondles the stalks, brushes her fingers over the tops as if tousling a toddler’s hair. She rubs the dry flowers over her arms, even in the creases of her elbows. She says lavender reminds her of Provence, of Nana. David had taken her to France for their first anniversary. Her grandmother sprinkled its chalky powder on her dresses, on her sweet, old arms. So, Emily fills sachets with dried buds, adds lavender’s essence to chocolate desserts. Friends have caught her crumbling freshly pulled petals over lamb ragout.

Yes, Emily is mad for lavender. She has invented a delicate, yet potent blueberry lavender martini. When held to light, three distinct colour layers are revealed, each shade shown to advantage by the blueberry mint garnish she crafts. Her husband, David, is sick to death of lavender. He mocks Emily’s preoccupation with it, says she’s afflicted by sophomoric affectation. She thinks he’s joking.

When Ben first saw Emily, lavender didn’t come to mind. He looked up from his work and there she stood: modern and spare. Small of bosom and hip, she presented all legs and eyes. Ben was researching the division of marital property in Oklahoma on the public library’s Internet, trying to stretch out the time left before putting in a little face time at his office. He doesn’t have any afternoon clients, but has to review the Johnson file before tomorrow morning. That file. What a sorry record: grief and pettiness cutting across three states, requiring custodial arrangements for two sullen teenagers. There’s more pain than money here. Seeing Emily gives him a mini-daydream; trying to refocus on work, he notices a bright flash of white hair tumbling over the woman’s huge laughing eyes. He sees her again. She hasn’t moved out of his sight. Emily is wearing a short brown skirt and tall tight boots from which her long, pale legs extend. Ben gives his attention to her, catches himself thinking, she knows me. He smiles at her, asks if she needs anything.

“I guess I do,” she says, leaning deep into his space. It’s only then he becomes aware of lavender. He was expecting J’adore, or, perhaps, Poison. Last spring, his last girlfriend moved out. He missed the hominess, at first. When a letter comes for her, he takes it over in person. They chat; she makes him a drink. He keeps her many magazines for himself: Glamour, Self, Elle. She’s never asked for them. He likes to take the quizzes, scan the ads. He really enjoys them—looks forward to the next issues. He’s learned as much about himself as the minds of women. For instance, Ben now knows that as a woman, he’d be moderately conventional. Adding up the points of his answers reveals that he would not be kittenish in bed. He’s more demure.

He’s surprised when Emily asks him to join her for tea. She’s pretty and young. She knows exactly where they’re going and soon they’re sitting on fussy, overstuffed chairs. Their tattooed server sets down pots of floral infusions, clattering, borderline messy. She has to return with sterling strainers. It’s a haphazard establishment with no discernible theme, no trays. The tea, however, is excellent. Ben adjusts to Emily’s height, allows himself to relax into adventure. He confirms that he’s not married or in a relationship, and that he’s straight. He finds her questions irritating. She tells him all about her Internet search for Katy’s Tea Room; her tone apologetic. She says she’s a little tired from the drive. She’s come all the way from Oxford, not that she doesn’t make “cooler runs” all the time. Ben knows about the sedans and SUVs whose trunks are kept ready for sun chokes and decent arctic char. He’s familiar with the Memphis-Oxford food run. He’s suddenly tired too, realizing he’s cycling the names of perfectly decent places to buy groceries in Oxford. Emily turns business-like.

“I have a request.” She’s urgent, insistent.

Her direct examination bothers Ben. This is not a quiz in Cosmo. He is not half-asleep wondering how pathetic it is to answer yes to questions, he suspects should be no. He’s bothered but also baffled. She can’t know what he’s capable of doing or offering. He switches on lawyer mode, wary and precise.

“A request?”

“I’ve been married for five years.” She’s shameless, stares him flush on. “I’ve never had relations with anyone but my husband. David.”

“And this concerns me, how?”

“I don’t want a boyfriend, to have an affair or anything. I just want to know what it’s like with someone else. You know, to see if it’s different. When I saw you, I could see you’re clean. You don’t look like a creep.” Her voice loses steam. She pours more tea.

“Yeah. That’s me, a regular boy scout.” Ben is trying to figure out why he is so insulted.

“Would you be willing to have sex with me?”

Ben brings his napkin to his face. He realizes that he is embarrassed, shocked, flattered. His face is red, his mouth dry. He drops the napkin, rubs his hands on it.

“Just once.” Her tone is almost condescending. It’s the voice Ben uses to calm an edgy client. “No strings attached. I promise. We’ll just do it, and then I’ll leave. I’ll never call you. I won’t stalk you.”

Emily is so sure he’ll say yes, Ben wants to reject her out of hand. He wants to show her that men aren’t what they seem, that they aren’t so easily won. Instead he says: “Sure. Why not?” He follows with his spectacular smile. His partners call it is his closer look.

Emily stands up even though they aren’t half way through their little sandwiches, the dainty scones. He hasn’t poured a second cup, had been planning to make a better job of it, without dribbles. She starts chattering.

“Let’s go, then. Before you change your mind. I really appreciate this, Ken.” She takes a bill from her back pocket, slaps it on the table. Ben can see it’s only a twenty. Pretty sure this isn’t enough, he stands there, uncertain. It’s her party, but it’s his town. He adds a ten. The whole thing feels farcical. He hopes she hasn’t seen him increase the payment.

“Ben,” he states. “My name is Ben.”

“Of course.” She produces a smile of her own.

Emily’s eager to go. They leave, not looking back, not taking one last sip. Emily laughs again, amused as they bump bodies, each having decided they know which way to go. Ben likes her laugh. Still, he’s not as happy as he feels he should be. Has he been chosen because he’s non-threatening? There are lots of men in Memphis. Trying to make an almost creepy situation appear friendly, he takes her hand. Emily pushes him away as if he’s insane.

“Someone might see us! God, Ben. I’m married.”

Ben acknowledges his mistake. “I read law at Ole Miss.”

This is enough to convey to Emily his awareness that women who live in Oxford shop in Memphis and that he knows they talk. She nods relieving him of social embarrassment. They walk along in silence the few blocks to his car. Once inside, she puts her hand on the back of his neck, making little circles in his short, wiry hair. Ben knows this is how she plays with her husband. He puts the thought out of his mind, tries to just enjoy this domesticity. So this is what it’s like to be married.

Once home he looks for any evidence she’ll back out. There is none. Emily’s undressed before he’s shown her the bedroom. Ben is unnerved by her lack of artifice. Her tall boots are quickly dispensed. Emily hasn’t needed to sit down, to pull or wiggle. Zip and they’re off. She gets out of her socks like a youngster, using the opposing toes of each foot to scrunch the fabric down and then flip them off. She bends to stuff each one inside its partner boot. She is not worried about the view of her backside. He’s never been with a woman so unconcerned about her body. It’s like she’s getting ready for gym class.

“I knew your house would be tidy.” The words she chooses to describe him leave Ben feeling unmanned. He can’t argue with her assessment. He is neat; he is a gentleman.

So there she is: waiting, completely at ease, naked. Still in his suit, Ben thinks: I’m dealing with a child. Emily appears to be waiting for him to cause something, not unlike the way his previous partners’ children, his nieces and nephews, stand by swings, silently demanding a push, a boost up, or the way they eye teensy spoons coated with peas or beets. They know the spoon will end up in their mouths if they just sit there looking at it. Emily reminds Ben of a cat nuzzling a door in that way that shows time is not a concept for it, that it can wait as long as necessary for the knob to turn, the door to open. Emily makes him think of a baby waiting to be diapered.

“Are you sure about this? There’s this sense I’m having that I’m maybe taking advantage.” Ben imagines what his mother would advise for this situation. What is the right thing to do? He tries to understand why, with so many candidates to choose from, Emily has picked him. Why me? “Do you still want to do this?”

Emily nods. “Yes. I committed to this before I left Oxford.” After a pause and with nothing happening, she asks, “Don’t you have to call your work or anything, Ben?” And then with equal weight, “Is there something you want me to put on?”

“Emily. I haven’t had sex for four months. I need a little time to get to know you. And no, I don’t have to call into my work ‘or anything.’ What a wifely thing to say.”

He’s only trying to make a joke, to loosen things up. Boundaries are shifting too quickly for him.

Emily takes his comment the wrong way. She swallows, holds her eyes tightly together, a movement he knows from his divorcing clients is meant to keep you from crying.

“I knew I wouldn’t be good at this.” She sits down on a dining room chair, her posture perfect. Back against the chair, her breasts stick straight out, too small to go anywhere else. Each nipple is tiny; they’re pale—the colour of a toy doll. The pink fleshiness accentuates how white the rest of her is. Ben can’t get over her poise; the innocence of her relationship to her body is new to him. He likes it. “You can change your mind if you want to, Ben.” She’s composed her face and has resumed the negotiation. “I know this is bizarre. You don’t have to go through with this.”

His body isn’t anticipatory, even though here she is. He can’t stop wondering what men had been considered and rejected before she focused on him. Had she come directly to the library or had she tried her luck at the courthouse, the supermarket? Had she been with someone else forty minutes ago and when he gave her an out, did she say those exact same words? He can’t let her be rejected twice.

“Of course I want to, Emily. The pacing’s off. That’s all. Let’s start over again. Let’s pretend we know each other. You stay here and I’ll come back when you’re not expecting me. It’ll be more fun. Sex is not just the doing of it, you know.” He sounds inane to himself. The rhythm of his words seem childish.

“I know that.” She doesn’t pout. “Ben. I’m not a virgin. I’m just inexperienced.”

“Emily, we didn’t think things through. For me, I need a context. Look. You get dressed, go in the kitchen and pretend to be making dinner.”

Emily indicates she’s game. She asks how long she has to get ready.

“I’ll be home by five.”

“Okay, sweetheart.”

Ben leaves his house with the stranger inside. He doesn’t usually drink in the afternoon but he stops at a bar by his office and orders a beer. There are quite a few men he recognizes, but doesn’t know, chatting over cokes and pretzels. Ben nods and smiles. He drinks straight from the bottle, wondering whether he should bring Emily a gift. Decides against it. He wonders if she’ll be there when he gets back. He doesn’t know if he’ll be relieved or sad if she’s gone.

Emily is excited now that she’s alone. Anticipating sex warms her skin even before she sees its glow in the mirror. She blows a kiss at her reflection with her hands on her hips. Emily winks at Emily. She turns to Ben’s closet but finds nothing of interest there. His shirts are on laundry hangers. This makes her feel sorry for him, that he has no one to force him to use good wooden ones. She searches for any little something left by another woman—a slip, a nightgown, but finds none. The suits soldier from charcoal wool to pale linen, just like David’s do. She has no choice but to put back on her same old clothes. Knowing that this won’t take long and that there is no way she will eat dinner with Ben, she calls the first take-out number she finds. It’s a sushi place and they say it will be there around five-thirty. She’s never cared for any kind of Asian food; she orders what David would if he were here. Nothing with eel or octopus—a California Roll in case the fish is off.

With fifty minutes to kill, Emily doesn’t know how to follow Ben’s instructions. She remembers her lavender martinis and how they always cheer a place up. She goes out back to cut some fresh lavender, but remembers where she is. There’s nothing in Ben’s garden except a few trees, some grass and the sorts of perennials bachelors have. A look through his cabinets shows he doesn’t keep liquor at home.

Emily almost had sex with the boyfriend before David. There have only been the two. Her reason for constant deferral had been the gravity he brought to each encounter. They were young, freshmen in college. Allen got all red-faced and fumbling from wanting her. Embarrassed for him, she couldn’t keep her focus. David was older than Allen, a senior, and more experienced. He came at the whole thing playfully, pretending to be a cat, biting her toes. It wasn’t until years later that she wondered if serious wasn’t more in keeping with the nature of the thing.

Yesterday afternoon, Sunday, she approached David with a sombre face. She wasn’t sure how to convey what she wanted. She almost asked him to stop joking around but couldn’t figure out how to say this, without it sounding like a criticism of their entire shared life. So she wore the sombre face and willed him to notice what she wanted. David somehow sidestepped the force of her willing; he just couldn’t keep his mirth down. After they’d finished, he went, as he always did, to fetch some water. She lay there, trying to find the reason to forgive him.

Emily balances their checkbook, was an A student in college and now is competent at her job. She’s in charge of all the windows at Oxford’s department store and she signs off on all marketing initiatives. She has a good eye for fashion, colour, the juxtaposition of shape and font. David’s daddy owns the store; the three of them do their business things together across the square in their corporate offices. Over morning coffee, she gave David several chances to apologize for missing her cues, but it was like he didn’t even know anything was wrong. Infuriated, even though she knew she really shouldn’t be, she decided to go over to Memphis and set things right.

“I’ve got to get to Memphis, David.”

“Well, that’s good, Emily. You have fun.” David didn’t even acknowledge her resentment. He just smiled. “Be careful.”

The world turned until it became five to five at Ben’s house. She decides to take her boots back off. Ben suspects Emily will return to Mississippi to spend the night with her husband, so he stops at his office to pick up the rest of the Johnson file and to check in. He’s stalling. He can’t be late so he gets his car and drives back to the house. He sits out front, waiting for inspiration. Nothing. Letting himself in a little noisier than if it were to the customary emptiness, he announces,

“Honey, I’m home.”

She welcomes him with a warm, open-mouthed kiss.

“What’s for dinner?” When did I become such a ham?

“Sushi. It’ll be here in fifteen minutes—we can put it in the fridge for later.”

Emily hasn’t lost her self-assurance. She leads him into the bedroom. She doesn’t ask Ben about his day. She refrains from using funny voices. Emily kisses him again, so soon they are prone and panting, as people do. Pieces fit where they should; the feeling of being marionette is unavoidable. In spite of her intentions toward gravity, then, Emily giggles. Ben is relieved and starts in with a few jokey remarks. It’s a good time—sex is what it is.

Emily tells Ben she better not stay for dinner. She’s ready to go home. As Ben drives her to her car, she’s proud she keeps the lesson to herself. It’s exactly the same.

Ben’s life was not much changed by his afternoon with Emily. He sometimes thinks about their late afternoon encounter. Sometimes he allows himself to dwell on it. He credits its novelty for a happy conclusion to the Johnson affair. His altruism stoked, he made an extra effort to keep his client from haggling over furniture, from bartering weekends with distressed offspring for any other thing.

Two years after his tea with Emily, he finds himself married, domesticated. It’s a puzzle though, that he smells the stink of lavender everywhere—on his fingers, at the bottom of his drawers.

Switching from coffee to tea has produced a Ben who is almost prissy. He loves its paraphernalia; he even plans vacations to places where tea rites are prized. When tall, pale women hold his eye, he wonders why they pass him by. Why not me?

Occasionally, he finds himself thinking about Emily, whether he has damaged her. He holds the memory close, just as he does his tins of teas. The Assams and Jasmines are delivered to his office; he never shares them. After a trying deposition or a rare failed settlement, he warms a clay pot on the hotplate he keeps hidden in a bottom file drawer. From that same drawer, he retrieves an antique silver strainer with its porcelain drip bowl. Ben is soothed by lovely cups of tea.

Kristine is perfect for him. She’s stately and funny, numbers three and seven on his list of ten preferred qualities in a wife. She’s surprised whenever he gives her gifts with a lavender theme: soaps, hair pomades, little baskets filled with dry buds. She doesn’t like lavender. Kristine’s considered telling Ben lavender is not quite her thing, but she doesn’t. Over the years, she finds a way to just be grateful. He loves me. He wants to grow old with me.

Emily and David continue living. David takes over the store when his father retires. Emily returns home to raise the two children. Sons. Slowly, she starts using the perfumes David gives her for appropriate occasions. The men who did the back fence did such beautiful work that she asked them to fill the front garden’s borders with matching stone. She doesn’t have time to stuff sachets.

One day the doorbell rings. She’d been rushing to find the boys’ soccer cleats. Annoyed, she opens the door to find a florist’s box on her porch. Thinking that David has sent roses again, she finishes packing for practice, then confirms private goalie practice for the next day. She thinks she’s earned a hot bath and is about to take it when she remembers the delivery. She’s grateful, of course, but wishes there could be a little variation in this world. Lifting the lid, having already set David’s mother’s best vase out to receive its bouquet, she doesn’t immediately make sense of the two long stalks of dried lavender tied with twine. “A little lavender for Emily,” is typed by one of those machines that ape human hand. Emily’s not usually overcome by emotion, but she is utterly delighted. She sits at her perfect kitchen table, shoulders straight back. She’s pleased.

Robert Marswood – Good Cooking is Good Chemistry

Good Cooking is Good Chemistry
from Book II, Chapter 1 of Out of Zion
by Robert Marswood

Brad began to feel more at home as he cooked his first meals in his Haight Street studio apartment. Except for the flight of a dozen cockroaches the first time he’d used the stove, cooking usually put Brad into a good mood after a hard day at work. As he tenderized the pork cutlets, Brad thought about the lawyers who had requested the last-minute photocopies that had kept him two hours longer at work on a Friday. Imagining their heads under the tenderizing mallet, Brad struck the cutlets harder. The pyramidal spikes on the mallet head tore through the tough fibers in the cheap cuts making them easier to cook and to chew. With each swing, Brad felt a little better about another week of mind-numbing, back-aching work. First dinner, then the dishes and, after that, a run in the Panhandle. Brad hoped he’d be so worn out afterwards that for once he’d quickly fall asleep.

Brad dripped lemon juice over the tenderized schnitzels and then rolled them in peppered flour. As he dropped them into a heated fry pan, the cutlets spattered and their white coats yellowed in the hot oil. Brad quickly wiped up the oil splatters with a dishtowel he kept over his shoulder. He wanted to remove any tasty incentives rouge roaches might have to race across the top of the stove.

When he lived at home, Brad’s mother had always shooed him out of the kitchen as if cooking were some sort of magic. Every Sunday afternoon after church, Brad waited with his father and brothers in the living room for what seemed like hours as his mother and sister struggled to get the weekly roast on the table. If Brad went through the swinging kitchen door to look or to help, however, his mother immediately bounced him back into the dining room. Brad couldn’t understand what she had against men in the kitchen. It was as if she was the guardian of the family’s culinary secrets. Secrets that were to be kept from the men, so they would get and stay married.

It was because of this that Brad never forgot his parents’ surprise the first evening he’d made weenies, baked beans and salad for his younger brothers, who, as usual, had spent hours wrestling on the living room floor and rolling into the sofa and the television set. Brad was supposed to babysit them while doing his homework—50 pages of AP history and a ten-question calculus problem set.

“You’re their older brother,” Brad’s father would roar at him. “You’re in charge when your mother or I aren’t home.” Sometimes Brad’s parents, who both worked at “the store,” known to the rest of the world as Winton’s Pharmacy, weren’t home until after 9 PM even though closing time was 7.

That night his parents had gotten home especially late, around 10. Instead of finding the house the usual disaster with magazines and newspapers smeared all over the coffee table, lampshades askew and the crocheted sofa throw ripped off the couch and on the floor, they saw Brad drying the dishes. His younger brothers had been fed, done their homework and were upstairs in the bathroom brushing their teeth getting ready for bed. The boys’ schoolbooks and bookmarked homework assignments, including Brad’s, were lined up on the dining room table, ready for his father’s inspection. His parents’ mouths fell open and silent. They wondered what sort of coercion Brad had used to get his incorrigible brothers to behave.

He showed them the empty pork and beans can and the plastic frankfurter wrapper. “All I did was open a wrapper and a can, put them in a pan, stir them around and in ten minutes dinner was ready,” Brad said, as if he were trying to justify some wrongdoing. His mother gave Brad a wounded look, as if he had betrayed her. His father for once didn’t go into his 30-minute tirade until his mother got dinner on the table. “I also washed and cut up half a head of lettuce, two tomatoes and two carrots and made a salad.” Brad’s mother went upstairs to his parents’ bedroom and shut and locked the door. For a moment, Brad’s father looked as if he might ask Brad to make him supper. Then he turned towards the door, got back in his car and drove off, probably to some burger joint on Second South.

Many of Brad’s first missionary companions were almost as clueless about discipline, housekeeping and cooking as Brad’s younger brothers. After a hard day of tracting and having scores of doors slammed in their faces, Brad’s first senior missionary companion, Elder Stockton, enjoyed nothing more, once back at their apartment, than wrestling Brad to the floor and farting as close to his face as possible. Brad realized that this yokel, from some obscure corner of Montana, population 5,000, did this to reassert his bruised ego. He just wanted to make sure Stockton didn’t bruise him.

Stockton, just like Brad’s younger brothers, wasn’t too careful about the furniture either. End tables and lamps were knocked over. Then he tried to hide the damage by gluing things back together instead of telling their landlady, Frau Hagen, who was always complaining about something.

Brad had suffered from Stockton’s roughhousing for more than two weeks. Once Stockton had unscrewed the toilet seat and Brad had fallen off and hit his right knee against the bathroom’s hard, cold tile floor. Another time Stockton had stacked canned goods in the cupboard so they fell out onto Brad’s head when he opened the door. But Stockton’s cooking was by far his worst offence. It seemed like he’d learned it on some chuckwagon. All he ever made were pork and beans and sausages from a can and hamburgers that were burnt on the outside and bloody on the inside. Other nights, they ate peanut butter and jelly or cold cut sandwiches. Brad didn’t know if Stockton was running out of money, as many missionaries did towards the end of their missions, or if he just didn’t know how to cook other things. But after three weeks of bad food, Brad decided it was time to start making some changes.

The first was when Brad bought a cookbook on sale at the Hanover, Germany, Safeway.

“You can’t read that,” Elder Stockton quickly objected. “It’s not approved material,” he said reminding Brad that missionaries were only allowed to read The Four Standard WorksThe Bible, The Book of Mormon, The Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price, “faith-promoting” theological tomes like Elder Talmage’s Articles of Faith or Jesus, the Christ, or Elder Richard’s salesman-like tips for missionaries in A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. This ban also included newspapers and magazines whose front covers Brad quickly and surreptitiously scanned as he stood in the supermarket check-out line with Elder Stockton.

“Would you like to eat PB&J sandwiches, sausages, beans and half-cooked hamburgers for the rest of the time we’re together?” Brad asked. Elder Stockton didn’t answer.

“Besides,” Brad continued, “I don’t think there’s anything in here against church doctrine unless they throw in a little cooking sherry every now and then—and I’ll leave that out.”

Brad bought the book. It was about frying techniques since many Germans didn’t have ovens, just a few gas burners set at waist height on top of their half-sized refrigerators. Brad learned all about tenderizing, marinating, breading and frying schnitzels, sausages and other cheap cuts of meat in a pan at the correct temperature.

The first time he ate one of Brad’s cookbook dinners, Elder Stockton gave his companion the same open-mouthed look Brad’s parents had given him when he’d fed and pacified his younger brothers. Using just the basics—water, flour, egg, salt, pepper, sugar, mustard and a little heat under a frying pan—Brad had transformed the cheap, tough, supermarket pork schnitzels, which most missionaries tried to chew and swallow quickly, into something tender and savoury. Soon dinners became something not just to be endured, but to be enjoyed and even anticipated.

It was then that Brad discovered that good cooking was no mystery, just good chemistry. It required following recipes step by step and adding the right amount of heat to create a controlled chemical reaction. He’d set up and monitored much more complicated operations with glass funnels and tubes in the back of his father’s pharmacy—titrations and distillations—which sometimes ran overnight or all weekend to create customized, prescription drops, lotions or pills. Winton Pharmacy was one of the few Wasatch Valley drugstores that still did that.

The cutlets had browned on one side, so Brad turned them in the pan. It was getting warm in the kitchen, so Brad opened a window. Fog-cooled air rushed into the hot room.

Elder Stockton didn’t say a word, when a few weeks later, Brad bought a book on baking, a roasting pan and two, narrow cake molds. Soon they were enjoying chicken and pork roasts with potato, carrot, onion, turnip or celery trimmings twice a week with a banana or chocolate pound cake for dessert. Brad usually put the two cakes into the oven as soon as he took out the roast to save on gas. He didn’t want his landlady, Frau Hagen, complaining about the gas bill again or about the two missionaries’ daily morning showers.

Sie sind Amerikanen,” the mission president tried to explain to her to no avail. “Das ist gewöhnlich.”

The first cake was for Brad and Elder Stockton that evening and the next day. The second was for the other zone missionaries. Before he went to bed, Brad sliced the leftover meat for the next day’s luncheon sandwiches. The second cake he cut into 2 cm. thick slices and packed them into plastic bags for the other missionaries.

He’d also trained Elder Stockton to share the household chores—cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming the living room and taking out the rubbish—in exchange for a warm evening meal, though he still made remarks to try to redeem his wounded manhood.

“Oh, you’ll make some woman a good wife some day,” or “You’re such a sweet spirit,” he taunted.

Brad liked to think that Stockton regretted it, though, when he was transferred to Bielefeld two months later. Elder Bergamo, as Brad was called, had two more senior companions who were prone to the same wrestling matches and practical jokes as Elder Stockton. This time, however, Brad initiated the food reward/response mechanism within the first days of their assignment. Thus he avoided, for the most part, the rough and tumble and bruises he’d gotten from Elder Stockton.

As Brad began to rise in seniority in the Northern German mission, he became shocked at how little some of his fellow missionaries had saved for food or received from home to eat. Before Brad had even left for Germany, his part-time farmer/full-time banker uncle in Ohio had transferred three thousand dollars to a Deutsche Bank account so he wouldn’t run out. None of the other guys had the ways or the means to put away such a financial cushion. Many could barely save enough for two, wash-and-wear suits, aeroplane fare and the first few months of groceries before they left the States. In addition, the Hanover ward members had been instructed by the mission president not to feed the missionaries because he was convinced that time spent having warm lunches or afternoon Apfelkuchen and ice cream with older members kept the elders from getting their baptisms. And the Hanover mission was going through a particularly long dry spell. There hadn’t been any baptisms in the last quarter.

Seeing his fellow missionaries poverty, Brad quickly organized what he referred to as the United Order. Joseph Smith, Jr. had used the same term to define a method of consecration in which the predominantly poor converts of his fledgling church, gave what they had to the bishop, and received what they needed in return. Although Brad’s “Order” wasn’t communist, the missionaries saved at least 20 per cent on their grocery bills through buying in bulk. Brad bought fruits and vegetables at the twice-weekly farmers’ markets, and meat and bread from neighbourhood butchers and bakers. In addition, these tradespeople were so happy with Brad’s regular business and charmed by his upper-level German that they gave him little extras. The fruit and vegetable vendors threw in extra produce after they’d weighed and Brad had paid for what had been on the scale. The butchers gave Brad free, special cuts like cow’s tongue or Blutwurst—things too exotic for the other missionaries, but a challenge for Brad to cook and an unexpected treat for his companions. And the baker threw in a pastry every week with the bread and rolls like Bienenstich with its yeasty dough, cream filling and almond and honey topping.

The pork cutlets were brown on both sides now. Brad took them out of the pan and put them on a paper towel on a plate to drain. An express bus lumbered down Haight Street momentarily rattling the apartment windows. He put the plate with the cooked cutlets immediately into the refrigerator. He didn’t want any of the apartment’s wildlife getting to his supper before he did. He set “the table,” which was a built-in ledge underneath the china cabinet in front of a wavy, funhouse, reflective mirror probably from the 1920s when the building went up. Brad still didn’t have any money for furniture. He had rescued two chrome-framed, ’50s style, red padded kitchen chairs from a construction dumpster down the street and brought them home. Rust had permanently scarred the bottoms of the chair legs, but the padded seats and backs were intact and the frames. Though irreparably corroded at the bottom, the chairs were still strong and springy. Brad, however, still needed to get a frame for his mattress and springs to get them off the floor of his studio’s livingroom/bedroom.

Brad took a head of lettuce out of the refrigerator and washed it in the kitchen sink, watching to see if anything washed or jumped out. Then he sliced up a tomato, shaved a few carrots and poured some store-bought, blue cheese salad dressing, the only thing he hadn’t made from scratch, onto the salad. He took the cutlets out of the refrigerator, poured himself a glass of cranberry juice and sat down. He said Grace aloud with his eyes wide open so he wouldn’t be caught off guard by the roaches, hoping also the sound of his voice would frighten them away.

Brad began to eat. He was tired and hungry, but happy with how everything had turned out. The cutlets were crunchy and sweetly caramelized on the outside, tender and juicy on the inside and not the least bit pink. Sometimes if he got the pan too hot, the cutlets browned too quickly and were tough. As he sat there eating, the door to the Victorian Pub across the street opened and Brad heard piano music and people singing Happy Birthday. ‘They must be having a party,’ Brad thought.

As was to be expected, the mission president eventually got wind of the weekly meetings Brad had organized at his apartment to get the zone reports done, divide up some the week’s food and receipts and give the elders a taste of his cooking.

“Elder Bergamo, what’s this I hear about you having parties at your apartment?” the short, balding man snorted at Brad as he waited for an answer. The tense silence was broken only by the ticking of an old mantel clock above the fireplace in the president’s office. On the same mantel was a picture of a thirty-year-younger version of the president with a full head of blonde hair, standing next to President David O. MacKay and his wavy, white mane.

“It was a zone meeting not a party,” Brad said. “We got a lot of work done—tracting schedules, contact reviews and German scripture memorization.” Brad left out the part about the weekly food distribution. The only additional thing he admitted was feeding seven hungry, overworked young men. Brad knew immediately who had complained. It was his landlady, Frau Hagen. He hoped he would be out of her apartment soon. A few nights before, it had been very cold. Nonetheless, at 10.30 PM, just like clockwork before she crawled into bed, Frau Hagen cranked off the heat to Brad’s and Elder Wilhelm’s attic flat. In a few hours it was so cold the two men had to get up and get dressed, even putting on their raincoats in order to be warm enough to finally fall asleep.

The president shook his head. “I don’t want any unauthorized meetings of missionaries. You are here to work—not have a good time!”

Brad promised there’d be no more meetings at his apartment. That week, Brad went out and bought the biggest saddlebags he could find for his bicycle and his companion’s so they could transport and transfer “the goods” away from the prying eyes of any ward sisters or the mission president. Brad felt like a Cold War spy making the transfers in the park. Brad’s addition of a batch of cookies and some slices of pound cake as hush money only added to this feeling.

The bar’s door opened again. This time Glenn Campbell’s Galveston seeped out into the windy, foggy evening. Brad remembered when his mother had taught him the refrain’s rising chord progression one afternoon after school. He also remembered the sheet music’s colour photo of the attractive, blond-haired singer with long sideburns, a cleft chin and his head tilted back, eyes closed. Brad and his mother sat in front of the big, carved, dark mahogany upright piano his mother had played in her father’s family band when she was a teenager. No matter how bad his day had been at school, Brad soon forgot his troubles as his mother patiently and competently taught him how to transfer the notes on the sheet music to the keys. Soon, Brad didn’t even have to think about where his fingers had to go. He could sight read and the keyboard seemed to become as extension of his body. His mother was a great teacher. Brad wondered why she hadn’t gone to music school or taught her own students.

Brad ate the second cutlet and his salad. About halfway through his mission, he was transferred from Hanover to Berlin. Here in the walled German metropolis, surrounded by East Germany, it had been even harder to get baptisms. But his assignment proved to be a godsend when the ward’s 78-year-old choir director, Schwester Hauptman, a stalwart who had remained active even during Nazis, suddenly had a meltdown during sacrament service one Sunday because she felt the ward no longer followed her direction.

Lauter! Schneller!” she shouted, tapping the podium with her baton as the ward members tried to follow her. The problem, however, wasn’t the ward’s volume or its tempo. Schwester Hauptman just couldn’t hear or see that well anymore even though she’d been told for years to get a hearing aid and have cataract surgery.

In the middle of sacrament service, after conducting a hymn and becoming increasing red-faced, she left the podium and walked out of the chapel even before the 16-year-old young man carrying the silver tray with the bread got to the rostrum. After the service, one of the president’s counsellors took her aside for a talk. The next Sunday it was announced that Schwester Hauptman had been released, which the ward confirmed with a quick, unanimous show of raised hands. It was immediately announced thereafter that Brad had been “called” as the new ward choir director, which was also confirmed with another quick, unanimous show of hands.

Brad was pleasantly surprised. Most of his mission, he’d hardly spent any time at the keyboard. It would be nice to practise and play regularly again.

“Great, now I’ll never get my baptism,” Elder Swensen, Brad’s new junior companion, complained as he sat at the back of the chapel during the choir practice since they always had to stay together, instead of “on the hunt,” as Swensen called it. All that tall, thin, blond kid ever talked about was hunting and fishing in some forest or stream in Idaho or how much he wanted to get his baptism so he wouldn’t go back home empty-handed. In Latin America, he complained to Brad, elders baptized at least one person a week. Here, elders were lucky if they baptized one person their whole mission.

“Just wait,” Brad tried to reassure him. “It’ll happen. Besides, I think people here would rather come to us instead of us bothering them.” Going door-to-door looking for converts hadn’t yielded anyone who was more than vaguely interested in joining the church. Most respondents were elderly men and women with time on their hands who were just curious about the well-mannered, well-dressed, young American men standing on their doorsteps or behind a table in the open-air markets. Most had pleasant memories of the Allies who, during their youth, had saved them from the Russian soldiers who had raped and murdered as they advanced block-by-block to the city centre and Hitler’s bunker. These people, out of curiosity and/or nostalgia, took the discussions, but all finally declined to be baptized.

Brad worked with the ward choir so that they could begin to enjoy singing together. He had twice as many women as men. That was OK, though, since the ward’s brothers and sisters, most of whom were over 50, couldn’t hear half the high notes any more. Brad used warming-up exercises to help build up the choir’s vocal power and range. Breathing, articulation and phrasing exercises also helped put the drama back into what had previously been monotonous hymns. In addition, he added some familiar German hymns, which were in the LDS hymnbook, such as Luther’s Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, but which Schwester Hauptman, for some reason, had never used. Brad also added some newer hymns like Ich bin ein Kind von Gott. Brad guessed these had been added decades after the older members had joined the church.

Best of all, Brad praised the choristers when they did something well, and corrected them separately, not in front of the group, unlike Schwester Hauptman. After a few weeks of positive reinforcement, the choir really did sound better and five ward members had asked to join. After practice, there were also cookies or cakes Brad had baked along with hot chocolate, warm, anise-flavoured milk or cool, sparkling Sprüdelwaßer.

A few months into his “calling,” Brad was in a mission president’s office again, but this time he had asked for the meeting. He wanted President Zimmerman to hold an open house with food and a concert to try to get people from the neighborhood interested in the church.

Das ist nicht möglich!” Zimmerman insisted, pounding his fist on his oak desk, his white eye brows raised and the blue vein on the right side of his forehead throbbing.

Warum nicht?” Brad argued. “Going door-to-door just makes people angry, information stands in the town centre don’t attract anyone except nuts who want to argue for hours or people who have pleasant memories, but don’t get baptized. The free English lessons also haven’t drawn any converts, just parents too cheap to pay for tutors. Why not give some public concerts? At least it’s a way to get people into the chapel—of their own volition.”

The big, tall man leaned back in his high-back leather office chair, his arms behind his head, his eyes closed, thinking about Brad’s proposal, trying to get his pulse back to normal.

Ok, … nur eine Konzert!” he said gesticulating with his index finger towards Brad’s face. Brad, at first, couldn’t believe his luck. He left before Zimmerman had time to change his mind.

The ward brothers and sisters invited their family and friends to the concert, excited about how good the choir sounded and how much happiness and fellowship Elder Bergamo had brought them. Schwester Käks, or Sister Cookie, as she was affectionately called by the missionaries because she still invited them over for afternoon ice cream, even brought two neighbors from her Seniorenheim. One was Frau Meindert, a short, rather fat women with white-blue hair who had a bald patch on top. The other was Frau Dressler, who was taller and thinner and who always wore some sort of butterfly broach. Brad started the concert playing Bach’s Jesus, bleibt meine Freude on the organ. The choir started by singing, Ich brauch dich jeder Uur. In the middle of the concert, Brad accompanied himself on a solo and the concert ended with Luther’s Ein feste Burg is unser Gott.

Brad knew he had been hungry. He looked down and realized he’d eaten everything on his plate in just ten minutes. It had taken three times as long to cook the meal, but that was what happened when you made and ate supper alone. Now, there was nothing left to do but clean up—wash the dishes, put everything away in double Tupperware keepers so the roaches couldn’t get at them and take out the trash on his way down to run in the park. He turned on the hot water tap, waited for it to run from cold, rusty brown to steamy clear, and then put the dishes into the hot water and suds.

The concert drew an audience that nearly filled the 200-seat chapel. Frau Käks’ two neighbours became interested in the choir. They accompanied her to the twice-weekly rehearsals and sat in the back of the chapel knitting and listening to the choir until it was time for refreshments when Brad then invited them to join in. After about a month of “visits,” they came up to Brad at the end of one rehearsal and asked if they could join the choir.

Daß müße ich an Präsident Zimmerman fragen,” Brad said.

“Only if they join the church,” was Zimmerman’s answer.

And to Brad’s amazement—after three discussions and their first baptism charge—they did. Schwester Käks and the other ward sisters helped the two women sew their white baptismal dresses. They both wanted Brad to baptize them, but Brad persuaded Frau Dressler to let Elder Swensen baptize her, because as Brad’s junior companion, he needed the experience for his Lehre or apprenticeship. She agreed, though Zimmerman never understood why Brad gave his second baptism to Swensen.

“With two baptisms, you could have driven the Mercedes to conferences for the remainder of your mission,” he chided. The mission presidents in Germany, along with those in other places in Europe, gave missionaries perks if they baptized more than one person. Two baptisms got you the driver’s seat for three months to mission conferences. Three or four baptisms got you an extra free day with your companion. Brad had even heard from a high school friend on a mission in Norway who had gotten a week away from his companion in the countryside after baptizing a family of five. During the day, he could travel on his own as along as he returned every evening to his LDS host family and their summer cabin.

“I don’t really enjoy driving that much,” Brad had said. ‘What kind of queer American is this?’ Brad imagined Zimmerman had thought and he wasn’t wrong—about the queer part.

The bar’s door across the street opened again. This time Brad caught a bit of Debby Boone’s You Light Up My Life—his mother’s favourite song. She had taught Brad how to play it when he was 10. She had also hummed it to him as she taught him how to waltz seven years later in their Salt Lake living room in the weeks leading up to Brad’s senior prom. Unfortunately, they’d had to leave his grandfather’s piano in Ohio before they’d moved West. Brad still remembered how his father broke the news to his mother.

“Too heavy…too big,” he said. His mother gave his father first a puzzled and then a hurt look. Then she sat down in the nearest chair.

One of the movers, however, had walked in and overheard part of his parents exchange.

“I think we might….” Brad’s father turned and glared at the man, stopping him in mid-sentence. He also flexed his biceps and shot the mover one of his famous ‘I’ve killed a man with these hands’ looks that froze Brad in his tracks. The man stepped back and stumbled into the sofa. Then he quickly walked out the back door. He spent the rest of the day outside loading the moving truck.

Fortunately, for Brad, his new school in Salt Lake had its own music wing with a piano in every room so he was able to keep up with what he’d learned at home in Ohio. He even arranged to continue his lessons with Brother Friedman, his high school choir teacher. His mother, however, sometimes sat at home on the sofa staring at the empty space along the staircase where her father’s piano had stood in their house in Ohio. There hadn’t been enough money to buy a new one, his father had said, once they’d gotten to Utah. Besides, they needed all their savings to start up “the store” down the street at 9th and 9th. Brad’s father suggested Brad’s mother could practise at the meetinghouse just a few blocks away, but she said she was too tired after working with him all day and then making dinner.

Brad wanted to call his mother. He knew it was hard on her not knowing where he was. But he also wanted to keep the Utah State Police off his trail. What if his father had agreed to have the phone tapped? That was one of the reasons Brad hadn’t gotten a phone installed. The other was because Ma Bell wanted a $500 deposit for the first year since so many people left San Francisco without paying their bills.

Then Brad thought about writing his mother. Not from San Francisco, of course, because the postmark would reveal his location. He remembered a new store on Haight Street called Air Male. It sold men’s clothes and postcards from around the world including those from New York City. He remembered seeing cards of the Empire State Building’s silver spire and Times Square’s neon signs. Brad decided to send one of these to his mother, but to have someone else mail it from another part of the country. ‘How can I find someone to do this?’ Brad thought. Then he remembered he knew someone in the Castro who could certainly arrange it.

Antonije Nino Zalica – Rocco Carbone’s Bodyguard

Rocco Carbone’s Bodyguard
(from Bandiera Rossa in Coralville)
by Antonije Nino Zalica

Dato gave me a pair of sunglasses today. Chris told me I looked like a war criminal, but it seems to me I look just like an ordinary one. Earlier on we had a group photograph taken, we were all there except for the youngest one, who went off with a girl, I suppose he even fell in love. The photographs were taken on a lawn by a river called Iowa. Actually, we are in a state called Iowa, in a city called Iowa, in a memorial centre called Iowa, in a hotel called Iowa situated, as I have already mentioned, on the banks of a brownish river called Iowa. Most of the people around us were wearing T-shirts with “Iowa” printed across the chest. Dato has bought a pair of shorts to play football in, so he has “Iowa” written across his bum.

Rocco Carbone could have been a perfect gangster, his name is definitely right for it, and he sort of looks like one; black, combed- back hair, sparkling eyes, a restless spirit, a puzzling melancholy surrounding him like an aura, strange and volatile. Rocco is from Calabria, which fits perfectly as well, however, he does not live in Chicago, but in Rome; of course, he is not a gangster, or a consigliere, nor a burglar, gambler or pickpocket. Rocco is a forever futilely in love melancholic, partial to a drink; he is a writer too, of course, as are we all here, in Iowa City. I did not play football with him because, as I was told, he got so into it during the first game that he tripped over his own leg and spent the rest of the programme limping.

Although he is well into his adulthood, Rocco Carbone is still constantly in love and suffering for it. Sometimes it seemed to me that the “right to suffer” was more important to Rocco than love and being in love. He would try anything, he begged and knelt, in an old- fashioned way, before the objects of his adoration. He was ready to sacrifice everything for a bit of requited love or for, at least, some sign of it. Then he actually resembled romantic outlaws and ancient poets: Propertius, Tibullus or, at least, Petrarch—his consciousness muddled by the ecstasy of amorous longing. It need not be mentioned that this love was unrequited, and that the “Lauras” and the “Cynthias” changed in a strange and quickened rhythm. At the time I was hanging around with Rocco, the position was temporarily held by a beautiful and, they say, intelligent American poetess of Irish origin. She lived somewhere in Iowa, but had a boyfriend in Illinois whom she visit every Friday. That gave a perfect excuse to Rocco for even more passionate bouts of suffering and drinking. And so Rocco was consumed by amorous agony, and we, of course, drank with him, as if to help him.

Friday nights were the worst, every once in a while Rocco would desperately cry out: “Dato, do you know where she is now?” He always addressed Dato, as if he were a personification of us. Dato would reply with the wonderful understanding that only the people from Caucasus posses: “Yes, I know my friend, I know.” Rocco would then almost squeak: “And do you know what is she doing now?” And so it went on every Friday, to the point where we substituted the word “Friday” for the word “Illinois”—by which it was understood that the current “Beatrice” was getting off with some guy in Illinois. “Tomorrow’s “Illinois,” Rocco would sometimes say, the trace of appropriate sadness already in his voice. “Yes,” Dato would reply, “tomorrow’s Illinois.” “She’ll go to Illinois tomorrow, do you know why she goes to Illinois?” “I know, I know,” Dato would reply with empathy unique to him. And, after midnight, Rocco would cry out in his drawn-out Italian accent: “She is now in Illinois!” He would always draw out that word, he would sing it, Italian style, emphasize it with a strange self-agonizing pleasure. And so one night, we had already had a few, and Rocco wailed about Illi-no-i-s for the seventh time. I asked him, almost seriously: “Rocco, you must have some relatives here, in Chicago or Cleveland, some of your Calabrese. Maybe they could help you to solve that minor problem, with the girl?” Rocco stared at me with drunken, hurt eyes, then shrugged and nearly cried: “But Nino! I’m here in-cog-nito!” And then he started explaining how he would have no time for writing if his family knew he was there, he would have to call everyone, visit them, buy flowers for aunts, kiss the hands of grandfather’s relatives and bring chocolates for countless children.…He talked, and then paused, sighed with a long awaited relief, his face beamed with an ecstatic smile:

“Yes, I know! We’ll kill the guy!”

Yes, really, an idea struck Rocco, the problem could be solved in an instant, of course, the entire problem is in the boyfriend—if it were not for him, she would go to Rome with Rocco and would not live here in bloody Iowa, but in the centre of the world and in the city of all cities! And she would not be going to Illinois on Fridays to get her fat portion of passion!

“Dato, shall we kill the guy?”

“Of course Rocco, we will kill him for sure,” replied Dato practically in passing, while rummaging through his notes written in ornate and strange Georgian letters. Dato was the only programme participant who had not wanted a computer and only wrote in hand.

“It is so simple. We just need to kill the guy!” Rocco kept on repeating this sentence with a strange happiness, which even Robert de Niro would find difficult to act out so convincingly. Rocco was not acting it out. He was just in a position to imagine that remote possibility of realizing his dreams, or, maybe, he saw that his suffering could come to an end?

Although we spent almost three months in the USA, we did not kill anyone. Rocco soon became infatuated with someone else, so the fellow from Illinois was allowed to continue living happily, and we later heard that the Irish-American poetess had dumped him; nevertheless, she never did end up in eternal Rome. And I decided, once and for all, to become Rocco’s, my idol’s, personal bodyguard.

In Rome, Rocco had a weird job. Of course, he was a writer as the rest of us were, but unlike many of us, he was even acknowledged and read—however, he could not live from it. After he had become bored of teaching literature in a high school, Rocco found a job at a women’s prison. Every afternoon he would go behind bars and give literature classes to murderesses. Actually, those were not real classes. He would read selected texts to them and then they would discuss the contents. Once he told me how he had read an excerpt from a Tolstoy novel and one of the inmates said she could not listen to it any more and ran out. Later she admitted to Rocco that she had done away with her husband in exactly the same way, with an axe. “You know, that one was not evil at all, she freed herself from her tyrant, and that’s it. He had abused her terribly, you know.” I asked him whether he had fallen in love with any of the inmates. “Yes,” he said, “but nothing could be done about that.”

“And did any of them fall in love with you?”

“They were all, of course, in love with me!”

I truly believe that all of those women had really been in love with Rocco Carbone, but his destiny was such that some mysterious net had always found itself between him and requited love. In this case, it was the prison bars. God Eros was simply too mean to Rocco Carbone, and that is probably why he had described the god as a wicked and worn-out tramp in one of his novels. And gods are, as you know already, too egotistical and vain.

We were once, I remember, sitting in our common room on the third floor of the Iowa City University campus, a bit idle in our conversation, with a bottle of tequila, a little salt and lemon and, of course, a whole pile of ice. (Those ice machines on every corner certainly seemed to be the height of American civilization!) Quite a few of us were there. We talked about our childhoods and similarly silly topics. As a child I was, of course, a “pioneer.” I do not know how much people know about this, but in socialist countries everything had to be organized and collectivized in some way, so all the children above the age of six or seven belonged to the pioneer organization and they had to swear the “pioneer oath,” swear to listen to the elders, to be good and faithful to our leader and to the ideas of socialism and progress. And all the pioneers had similar “uniforms”—black trousers/skirts, white starched shirts, red scarves and hats with red five-pointed stars. At some point, I realized that most of the writers present in the room should have some experience of the pioneer past, and I asked each one if they had been pioneers as kids. Andrej Stanislavovič Bičkov from Moscow said: “Of course I was. Could it have been any other way?” and he laughed. Bičkov was a very entertaining and hilarious guy. We all had to give some kind of lecture to the students, and Bičkov started his in a very unusual way; as soon as he reached the lecture theatre pulpit, he admitted that he was not only a writer, but a murderer as well. Yes, yes, a real murderer who had killed two people! Everyone in the theatre stared at him confusedly, even with a feeling of unease (what if he really was, and you never know with the Russians, do you?)—and he did not let himself be disturbed, he calmly continued his confession and described both murders in detail—the first one he pushed under a tram without remorse, and watched him get crushed by the wheels, and the second one he stabbed several times with a kitchen knife and then decapitated him with one stroke! The American students stared at the strange little man who spoke English with an accent worthy of James Bond films’ worst villains. And he stood there at the pulpit of one of America’s universities with a smile on his face as if nothing had happened. And when everyone was really shocked, Bičkov added:“But I’ll have to emphasize that the two were writers as well! Postmodernist writers! And I hope that you can fully understand me now.”

But, let us continue with the topic of pioneers: Mileta Prodanović need not have answered. He said something like: “Give us a break,” with a grin. Ghassan Zaqtan from Ramallah looked at me over his cigarette he had just lit, showed with his ever-beautiful smile, which could have meant both confirmation and negation. So I was not able to find out whether Palestinians had a similar organization, but that they were a part of the “progressive humanity” was unquestionable. And Ghassan also had his “Moscow years,” and talked about them often. Aida, instead of an answer, started singing a well-known, Yugoslav partisan song, which, I later learned from a klezmer band in Poland, was actually a Ukrainian song. Aida was an Arab from Israel, and had problems introducing herself. I was plagued by similar difficulties. The most difficult thing was when they asked me where I was from, and they kept on asking that. People normally have a short and simple answer to that, two or three words and all is clear. But I have to take a deep breath first, take a short break—and then I start explaining slowly; I come from Holland, from Amsterdam, but actually I am from Sarajevo, from Bosnia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which used to be a part of Yugoslavia, I mean, former Yugoslavia….I go on explaining, not because I have to, but because I feel a vague compulsion to. Aida is always edgy; a muted frustration is constantly eating at her. The way in which she is addicted to nicotine reminds me of Sarajevo and Bosnia. As if we had gone to high school together and had smoked in secret, hiding from teachers, I get carried away sometimes and want to address her in my language. I started talking to Dato in that language once without realizing, and I also got his name mixed up, as if we had served in the army together somewhere in Slovenia.

Antonia always gives out a strangely calm aura. Just for a moment, I notice that her voice faltered, that her jaw imperceptively quivered; in the blueness of her eyes I notice a slight wetness. She has a similar problem as Aida and I, she explains where she is from—she is an Irish citizen, but, actually, she is from the Northern part: “Derry, not Londonderry, we call it just Derry.” She grew up and lived for a long time in Belgium. Poor thing, she never even had a chance of becoming a pioneer.

Viet, from Vietnam, as his name implies, laughed his ever childish laugh—a definitive confirmation of his pioneer past and not only that—children there are probably still some kind of pioneers, and our Viet may never have ceased being a member. And our friend from Laos, Tongbay, smiled in a similar way and continued nodding with approval for a long time. Su Tong, probably the biggest literary star among us, the author of the novel on which the famous film “Raise the Red Lantern” was based, did not have to confirm anything. Clear as day—of course he was a pioneer! Even Marius from Lithuania, although the youngest among us, admitted to having been a pioneer for a few months. Young Polish poet Dariuš, said something similar.

Only Marek Zaleski, although quite a few years older than Dariuš, refused, with resignation, any possibility of ever having anything to do with pioneers. We tried to “explain” to him that we still thought it impossible, but he kept on denying it with a harsh, neurotic twitch in his face. He was not, period! There was something there that pained him too much, and we stopped insisting. Only Dato admitted to asking his mother to iron his hat the night following his admittance to the pioneers, and he showed us how he had slept with it under the pillow, gently folding his hands under his cheek.

Dato was some kind of a “mobile Georgia,” wherever he was a small Georgian colony would form around him. And so he found some Georgians in Iowa, who kept on coming round to see him and take him out; among them, a strange type of closeness and openness was present already at the first meeting. Georgians are great patriots; they adore their country and everything Georgian, and, of course, each other, or at least it seems that way when they are far from Tbilisi, the Black Sea or the Caucasus. Once we had a real spectacle on our campus: some important demonstrations were taking place in Georgia, they had liberated themselves from a lot of things, but the local dictator still remained, and he wanted to shut down the only remaining independent TV station, and the people revolted. Dato had been a leader of an important student revolt in the nineties; he received a call in Iowa during the demonstrations, the phone was connected directly to a loud speaker on the square and he addressed the masses in the streets from his hotel room. We awaited him eagerly in the common room, he came back quivering, flushed:

“I told them—don’t worry, Rocco Carbone’s with us!”

I do not know whether he did that, but I do know he was crazy enough to do it. Then, one night, Dato told us we had all been invited to a barbecue by a Georgian family in nearby Coraville. All of us, more or less, accepted the invitation, except Chris Keulemans, whose excuse was that he wanted to stay in and work on his novel, “The American I Never Was,” only to admit later that he got stuck again and spent the entire evening staring at the TV. The Georgians came to pick us up and we piled into cars the best we could, some of us even sat in the boot of a large Cherokee jeep. On our way Dato explained to us the rules of a Georgian party: the booze up is always headed by a person called the tamada, who is often the host or one of the elders. Our hosts had several of Dato’s books on their shelves. They loved him and respected him very much and insisted on him being the tamada that evening. Dato hesitated. He thought that the honour belonged to the host, but they were persistent. The tamada dictates the evening, from what should be drunk and eaten and when, to the order and content of toasts, which are an unavoidable and the most important part of the festivity. He explained that everyone had to, unconditionally, accept the authority of the tamada, do everything that was asked of them, almost blindly and unquestioningly. He told us how he had once drunk in a village somewhere high up in the Caucasus. The tamada had been an old man, the head of the village, and in a moment of excitement he had said: “And now we will drink the Georgian soil!” and had poured a handful of soil into his wine. Everyone had followed him immediately, without any dissension. They had drunk the strange mixture of thick red wine and reddish soil.

We arrived in Coraville, a pretty town with terraced houses. The hosts were excited and everything had been ready for a good while. Iced vodka from the freezer was being drunk from long “test tube” glasses. On a large, semi-spherical barbecue, above practically “volcanic” embers, something resembling our own meat on skewers, ražnjići, was roasting. However, the skewers were shaped like sabres and each peace of meat was the size of a hand. Later we drank wine, Georgian of course, which is probably the best in the world, alongside our “blatina.” Our tamada, Dato, skilfully maintained the level of celebration. We drank to everyone—our mothers, those we loved but who were no longer with us. We toasted and drank copiously. The last toast Dato dedicated to our home countries and I have to admit that he dedicated a part of the toast to me alone. He said: “We will all return to our homes soon. Only Nino won’t, he does have a home and a family, but no longer has his fatherland. This is why I dedicate this toast to him above all!” As a matter of fact, until then I had not realized how right he was; Holland is a fine country, a country that had, actually, adopted me happily. But, Dato was right—a mother is a mother, and a stepmother is, after all, a stepmother, no matter how good or kind. It is strange, but, in the tamada ritual, nothing feels fake, or pathetic or sentimental like in our quasi-folklore rhyming toasts, which were always a sort of recited paroles, closer to sleazy sycophancy than frank camaraderie. But, putting that aside, Dato in the end asked everyone to give everyone else something from their country. Rocco, even though he was drunk as a lord to begin with (what can you do, it was the first day of “Illinois”), recited some Tasso or Petrarch—clearly, without stopping for a breath. Sergio talked about the secrets of Argentinean tango; Antonia said something about Dublin and the painful beauty of her native North; Ben, if I can remember correctly, was very eloquent on the topic of his childhood—Oxford I think it was, something resembling the “Dead Poets’ Society.” Everyone gave something beautiful, honest and warm. Finally, it was my turn; I said that, well, despite everything, I still held my mother tongue dear, no matter what they called it, and that it was that language that was some sort of my only remaining fatherland, and that I would try and give them some of the melodiousness and beauty of that practically nameless language; and I delivered, in a long and slow rhythm, the only poem I could remember then, and probably the only poem I ever knew of by heart, but most probably the best fitting one for the occasion: Pučina plava spava / prohladni pada mrak / vrh hribi crne trne / zadnji rumeni zrak….

Later we went out to the terrace, we also took a guitar with us. I played La Bamba (the only one I can play even when completely drunk). Ben sang a few fantastic songs (Simply Red? Pink Floyd?), one of which he wrote himself, and in one of the verses he improvised something about a man speaking, as he called it, Serbo–Croatian. Sergio played some strangely tender Argentinean love songs, Tango again, with knives thrown in, just like in Borges. So, that was that one starry night in Coraville.

Rocco sat in a corner of the terrace, drunk enough to be close to crying. He would sing an Italian song, he was not much of a singer, but the song would reach us all with its beauty. I took hold of the guitar, already drunk enough to have difficulty finding the strings, and asked Rocco:

“Do you know which is my favourite Italian song?”

Although a definitely hopeless singer, I neighed without a trace of inhibition:

Avanti o popolo alla riscossa

Bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa

Avanti o popolo ala riscossa

Bandiera rossa trionferà

Everyone took up the spirited rhythm of the song. And once we reached the refrain, Rocco got up on his feet, which could hardly hold him, his eyes full of tears: “You’re trying to provoke me, Nino,” he said while a smile fought with a tearful ache on his face.

“You don’t know that I, truly, was a communist.”

With a bitter, hoarse voice he began singing “The Internationale,” in Italian, of course. It sounded truly touching. In my drunken brain, bits of old films started whirling; horsemen shooting peasants asking for land from double-barrelled shotguns in Bertolucci’s “Twentieth Century,” bandit Guliano, who, in “The Sicilian,” hews down red flags on rocky ground with a heavy machinegun.

We all started singing with Rocco, and to be honest, our hearts somehow grew bigger in the middle of the state of Iowa. Marek Zaleski stopped us, his hands shaking with rage and some innate fear. He said it was the same as singing a fascist song, the same as crying “zieg-heil.” It is not the same—we tried explaining. It is not the same when The Internationale is being sung by Rocco Carbone, drunk on a terrace in Coralville and when it is being sung by a choir on a Warsaw radio during the Soviet occupation. This was in vain. Marek was still shaking. Although he was in the wrong, we had enough respect for his frustration and we started singing Dylan and The Beatles again, and I definitely decided to be Rocco Carbone’s trusty bodyguard for the rest of my life (which is why Dato gave me a pair of sunglasses, which, he swore, he was given by the biggest Georgian rock star).

But I never kept another promise I made to Rocco while walking through Little Italy in Manhattan; I told him I would write a story entitled, “I was Rocco Carbone’s Bodyguard,” which will tell a story of a young Bosnian, a war veteran and a refugee in New York, who, when he realizes how much respect the man is given (and the event took place during a book signing in an Italian book shop), mistakes the writer Carbone for a big mafia man and offers to be his bodyguard, just for a seven-day trial. In the story, a drunken Rocco agrees to the crazy idea, of course, and they become friends over those seven days. The concept was not bad at all, but every writer has to have a story that remains unwritten.

And then, I imagine, like a scene from an unmade film: the orchestra is playing The Internationale, unassumingly—some violin, a tempered piano. We slowly peruse the audience and notice—a gangster is sitting in an ornamented theatre box. We get closer and realize it is Rocco Carbone himself, and I am with him—I stand behind him in a black pinstripe suit and dark glasses of a Georgian rock star and take notice of every wink.

The Internationale is playing, the gangster is breathing in the smell of a red carnation. And he is crying, quietly, as if it were Ridi Pagliaccio.

Kate Foley – Love is Not the Only Truth We Know

Love is Not the Only Truth We Know (From her poem “Heavy Water”)
An Interview with Kate Foley
by Bryan R. Monte

On 27 April 2012, Amsterdam poet, Kate Foley, was interviewed in her Oud Zuid flat about her body of work. Foley is the author of four full poetry collections: Soft Engineering (Onlywomen Press, 1994), A Year Without Apricots (Blackwater Press, 1999), Laughter from the Hive, (Shoestring Press, 2004) and The Silver Rembrandt, (Shoestring, 2008), and two pamphlets, Night and Other Animals (Green Lantern Press 2002) and A Fox Assisted Cure, (Shoestring, 2012). Foley leads workshops in the Netherlands and the UK, she is a Versal magazine editor, and she was a David Reid Translation Prize poetry judge. Her first poetry collection was short-listed for the Aldeburgh Festival best first collection prize. Her next collection, One Window North, is due out from Shoestring Press in December 2012.

Bryan Monte: You had a very interesting childhood, didn’t you? You were raised by adoptive parents in London and some of your earliest memories, according to your poems, are of air raid shelters, isn’t that true?

Kate Foley: Oh, yes, air raid shelters definitely figured quite large because the Second World War started soon after I was born and we spent an awful lot of nights sleeping in them.

BM: So, you spent your early childhood in London during the Blitz?

KF: Yes, I did.

BM: I believe you’ve got one poem in Night and Other Animals, where you went down the street to play next to the “inside out” house, which was actually a bombsite. So that was part of your childhood?

KF: Yes, bombsites were our playgrounds and they were covered with a wonderful rash of purple from Rosebay Willow herb—its folk name is Fireweed. We used to roam all over the bombsites. And they were very dangerous and nobody cared, you know. They didn’t in those days.

BM: That’s very interesting as a child to have those sorts of early memories. You’ve also had a very colourful career with many different occupations. You were a nurse, a midwife, an archaeological conservator and also an administrator. Did I miss any other occupations or callings?

KF: Well, yes. I was a teacher also. I helped develop a conservation course, of which I was the head, at Lincoln College of Art. I was an administrator, but that job was as head of English Heritage’s Ancient Monuments Laboratory. I had a team of 60 scientists working in my department on all aspects of archaeological science and conservation. So, the main thrust of the job was both servicing archaeological excavations and building technology for ancient buildings, and doing research in that field. My scientists did a lot of research and it was very exciting.

BM: Well, that’s a very interesting pedigree for a poet. And your first book, Soft Engineering, was published when you were 56. Was there any reason that you waited so long to publish? Are you shy, do you consider yourself a late bloomer, or did you have other things to do?

KF: Well, very evidently I had other things to do. But I’ve written poetry since I was 11. I was at convent school and I had a very large, leonine, frightening English teacher called Miss Brennan. She had an absolute mane of hair and she got us to write a poem. And she read mine and said (in an Irish accent): “Do you realize, that’s poetry?” So after that, yes, I wrote sporadically but persistently. I wrote all the way through my nursing and my midwifery careers. But I never took myself seriously. I never thought I could be published, which was rather a mistake because the first poems I sent anywhere were to Socialist Commentary and Sean Day Lewis wrote very enthusiastically about these poems and published them. But I didn’t follow it up. Because I left school early—I was short of my sixteenth birthday—and I was in hospital almost immediately with TB—and because I didn’t go to university until I was in my early 30s, I’ve always felt that the education that I acquired has been piecemeal, pragmatic and certainly not “literary.”

BM: So in other words, you’re not, as I mentioned, the typical type of poet who read English at university, teaches there and produces a few books of poetry in between classes and corrections or on sabbatical.

KF: No.

BM: You just mentioned that you started writing poetry when Miss Brennan asked you to write a poem, but why did you continue on your own? What was your motivation to keep going all those years before you published your first book?

KF: Because I loved poetry. I loved reading it. I learnt screeds of it by heart at school. I can probably still recite the whole of “Ode to a Nightingale.” I was in love with words and also with what they could do, what they could express.

BM: Who were the people you aspired to be as a writer when you read their work? For example, who were you reading?

KF: Gerald Manley Hopkins who was a great influence on me when I was young, and Eliot, of course. We all read Eliot, even those of us who didn’t do much at school. And of course, before that there were the Romantics and the Georgians, though I think I’ve always been interested in what a modern idiom can do in poetry, and Hopkins was the first liberating influence. You could see there; you could do what you liked with words and you didn’t have to be grandiose or romantic.

BM: Well, that’s one thing I would say about your writing. It tends to be organic. It’s not formalist. It doesn’t generally fit within a standard poetic form like a sonnet or a ballad.

KF: No.

BM: You have a very keen sense of what to zoom in on. It’s almost photographic and cinematic. You zoom in on specific images and then cut quickly to others—definitely in the 20th century imagistic tradition. I think that in one of your other interviews you mentioned that you read a lot of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) at one time.

KF: Yes, but not at that time, though. Much later. Lots of modern, English and in particular, American poets later. I am very keen on Adrienne Rich. And what she writes about poetry is fantastic. She writes better and more passionately about the meaning of poetry, the use of poetry, the bread of poetry in one’s life than anyone else I can think of.

BM: So in other words, in your poems we’re not going to find a lot of rhyme schemes unless they come up on their own.

KF: I started by writing rhyming poetry. Not everything I wrote by any means was rhymed. Much of it was a precursor of what I write now. I think there’s a kind of continuity. My mother, who was working in a Christmas card factory, could never understand why I wouldn’t write rhymes for cards—and cash—because I used to write rhymes for her on demand for colleagues’ or workmates’ birthdays. I used to write scurrilous rhymes when I was a student nurse about ward sisters, matrons, etc.

BM: Well, that’s very interesting that you mention your mother because your parents, nursing and illness, delivering babies, and young, new and mature love—are themes that run from your first book, Soft Engineering, to your last—A Fox Assisted Cure. For example, let’s start with the title poem, “Soft Engineering” where you start with the image of the sea licking the coastline and a mother cat licking her new-born kittens and use this to describe something very human at the same time: “Ceaselessly licking the coast/the sea is engaged in soft engineering./She tongues up heaped trickling spits/ of shingle, as a mother cat/ pridefully peaks up the wet fur of kittens.”

KF:…and soft engineering is a branch of engineering designed to sculpt the shoreline to avoid floods…

BM: You do write poems with different types of themes, but you also clearly write as a lesbian. You talked earlier about writing political poems. From what I’ve read of your body of work so far, I haven’t really encountered anything that is political in the sense that someone is holding up a big sign and you’re telling people what to think and what to do.

KF: Oh, I hope not! I devoutly hope not! Because I think that if your politics aren’t integral and ingrained, you turn people off. I would turn myself off if I wrote like that. One of my more recent poems, “A Short History in the Chapter of Stone,” is inspired by a woman under sentence of death by stoning for alleged adultery. I do write from my own life, but I also write from others’ lives as well.

BM: Well let’s start with your own life first. There’s a couple poems in your second collection, A Year Without Apricots, (Blackwater Press, 1999), where you write about a woman delivering a still-born child, “The French for Midwife,” and then at the end the babe is still-born and you talk about the grief the parents share related to that and how they express it differently. “Blue Glass Empty Pram” I think is another poem along those lines.

U. A. Fanthorpe commented on your eye for detail in her comments on A Year Without Apricots. She said: It shares the same qualities as Soft Engineering but runs deeper, darker, stronger. A light and exact way with words. A whole basket full of unexpected perspectives. (Foley) writes with Hughes type of visual accuracy. So you zoom in. You have one poem, “The Only Ghost,” where you write: “Breath finds you out/ when you hide/Hung in its swung moment of poise/ like the tide,/it waits /till you plunge.// You can’t fool breath,/ it searches out/your flaccid veins/ forcing them wide, like mussels in the pan.” That’s the attention to detail that she’s talking about.

Now the title poem of this collection, “A Year Without Apricots,” was that about someone with AIDS? Was it an elegy? You talk about apricots that fall from a tree before they’d had a chance to ripen in contrast to the wonderful fruit the tree produced the year before.

KF: Not everybody in that poem had AIDS. One indeed died of breast cancer. But yes, it was the years of AIDS and the AIDS deaths. And we lost two, my then partner and I, lost two people, very close friends, from it. I guess we were lucky and only lost two.

BM: So you were involved a bit in the AIDS crisis also. I lived in San Francisco at ground zero in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s and lost an ex-partner and about a dozen other friends and acquaintances. I’m still trying to write about these people all these years later. They’re long gone, but they’re still with me at the same time.

KF: That conversation goes on, the conversation with people who have died and the resolution that can come in a conversation after death. And of course I don’t mean that literally, but I think I’ve got a few poems, a clutch of poems, about the difficult relationship with my adoptive mother and I think that through writing those poems, a resolution begins to appear.

BM: Yes, that is an interesting observation because I can see you working through things in your pamphlet, Night and Other Animals (Green Lantern Press, 2002). The first long poem, “The Don’t Touch Garden,” is about your adoptive childhood, right?

KF: Yes.

BM: And the second one, “Night and Other Animals,” is about the break-up of your relationship?

KF: Yes.

BM: So these are two very powerful series on how you went through two transitions. So how did writing “The Don’t Touch Garden” help you related to being adopted and how did “Night and Other Animals” help you relate and work through the material of divorcing?

KF: Writing a poem is an organic process of sometimes constellating images round memories. “The Don’t Touch Garden” more or less built itself. But I felt as well as being a poem about me and from my perspective it was also very much from the perspective of my parents. They didn’t have the emotional equipment or the resources to deal with this small stranger that they acquired. And you will find, in that poem, “The Don’t Touch Garden,” a lot about my mother’s dilemma of having lost seven babies and my father’s inarticulate, but basically loving nature. Although I respect poets who are loosely called “confessional,” I don’t want myself to write deliberately confessional poetry. I want to write about the more accidental aspects of the process of becoming who I am. Does that make any sense?

BM: Yes, it does, and you’ve not only done it in “Night and Other Animals,” but also in the “The Silver Rembrandt” when you go through your ontology, the history of how you became the person that you are.

KF: Except that it’s not me. Seriously, “The Silver Rembrandt,” although it draws on my own experience, and every poet draws on their own experience, she, Lily, was a fictional character. She is not me.

BM: That is an important difference. But the chapbook, Night and Other Animals, that is (auto)biographical?

KF: Yes. Both those poems are biographical. And I think the purgative effect of “Night and Other Animals” is because it is a lyric poem. It’s not about blame; it’s about loss and about accommodation to loss. It’s about parting and I guess that’s how I made sense of the fact that I left my partner of 33 years and came to Holland to live with Tonnie.

BM: Did you know Tonnie at the time you came to live in the Netherlands?

KF: Oh, yes, of course. I came after I knew Tonnie. We met in Washington DC in 1993.

BM: So you came to Amsterdam in 1997?

KF: Yes.

BM: And there’s a little bit of your biography in “The Silver Rembrandt,” because you moved here and the main character, Lily, moves here and has her bag stolen at the main train station.

KF: None of what happened to Lily happened to me. The only thing that I share with Lily—apart from Amsterdam—is that she, in her way, was dedicated to her art although she was a failed painter.

BM: I don’t think you’re anywhere near failure.


KF: And also she had a failed relationship as many people do and so did I. No, I haven’t stood on a soapbox, painted silver outside the Rijksmuseum. I only wish I had the courage.

BM: Well, you seemed to know Amsterdam, or at least the art in Amsterdam fairly well before you even got here because that is intertwined in your own work. Did that come as a result of working for English Heritage?

KF: No. English Heritage and archaeological conservation obviously fed my work, but I was an archaeological conservator and I handled ancient objects, bits of crud and lumps of rust, and x-rayed them and that sort of thing. But I did have painting conservators working for me and I know quite a bit about the science behind painting conservation. And, of course, I met Tonnie—who at that point was teaching science to painting conservators at Maastricht—at an international conference.

BM: Well, you write a lot about painting. You mentioned angels and Rembrandt in your earlier poems. Isn’t it strange that you came to live within walking distance of the Rijksmuseum and all those wonderful Rembrandts? [Laughter]

KF: Yeah.

BM: Did you think in the back of your mind that someday I’m going to end up in Amsterdam?

KF: No. I didn’t—ever. Amsterdam is the absolute last place I ever thought I’d live. I don’t think I gave Holland a second thought.

BM: I do want to talk to you about what influence living abroad and living in Amsterdam has had on your writing. We did mention those times where Rembrandt comes up. But now that you’re here, how has living in Amsterdam changed your work?

KF: Well obviously, at a very basic level, there is a whole suite of different images. But I think it’s more that, yeah, it’s also about language. I mean my Dutch is not yet good. I don’t know whether it ever will be. Sometimes it seems to be going achteruit (translation: getting worse). But, grappling with living in a different culture and using a different language and becoming intimate with people with a different mother tongue is wonderfully expanding and your horizons stretch to accommodate. You realize that there is a world that is your world, but it’s seen through different eyes. And it helps you to somehow recognize that people carry their own worlds formed by their own culture and history.

BM: I like what you do in the poem, “Shokat Dancing.” “She’s humming, the heart/of a brown flower./Pixels blaze erratically/ off, on, pick up the DNA/of music, scribbled in the air.” You talk about this woman, who has some years and some experience, but she still does this beautiful dance and she’s a part of it, arthritic and enthralling at the same time. And you write about how she dances and you’re taken up in that. That’s one of many things I like about Laughter from the Hive. You have mature, domestic love where you talk about moving in together. You have portraits of older women, your lover, yourself, and street people.

KF: Adrienne Rich says something about “naming.” In fact, I have one poem in A Year Without Apricots for Adrienne Rich, called “The great blue heron.” It was inspired by her talking about a heron and writing about it and realizing it just isn’t about an artifact or a thing that you write about. It has it’s own existence, it’s own mysterious self. A part of your task as a poet is naming in that sense. In other words bringing to the page and to the reader the quiddity of people, animals and events. I don’t think I’ve got anything as pretentious as a poetic creed. If I did however, I think that would be it. It’s about the task of faithfully naming.

BM: I think you do a very good job about being specific with your poetry, focusing in on things. Are there any other poems that you’ve written about Amsterdam that you feel are very evocative?

KF: “Elm Trees Amsterdam” or “A Gift of Rivers”—that’s a bird’s-eye-view of coming in by plane to Schiphol. And I have poems about the dogs of Amsterdam, “Where are my bones?” The Dutch and their dogs—they’re dog maniacs, aren’t they? You go to the Vondelpark and there are all these dogs absolutely laying down the law to their owners who are going about scooping up the balls and throwing them to them.


BM: They have their owners well trained. I’ve noticed that too. It’s kind of a role reversal compared to what I’m accustomed to.

KF: I think it’s the liberality of Amsterdam that has done quite a lot of unlocking for me, just being in a culture where people don’t wear bicycle helmets and put their lights on, although it drives me mad when they do that.

BM: OK. On to “The Silver Rembrandt,” which we have established, is not autobiographical.

KF: It’s really not. Except in the sense that, like most poets, I mine my own experience for images. Lily actually goes from the East Midlands, which I suppose is an autobiographical element because I worked for about 15 years in Lincolnshire. Nevertheless, I say, and nobody ever believes this, but it is absolutely true, that this is not an autobiographical poem. It sort of makes me a bit sad that nobody will believe that I’m capable of creating a work of fiction. Well, I am!

BM: It’s lovely. It’s a long, sustained poem with 21 different parts and then you’ve got some of Rembrandt’s paintings that are interwoven with the text of the poem. So tell me, why did you pick certain paintings to use as illustrations? Mention two or three paintings that you remember and why you used them.

KF: OK. I used them in a way as a technique as a spacer and a change of tone between chapters if you like of Lily’s life. But they became a kind of meditative pause. Very quickly, looking at the first one, “Old Woman Reading,” you can image a child at primary school seeing that postcard and correlating it with her old grandmother. So that was the resonance with Lily’s life. But I realized when I was writing these poems that I was actually very much getting what it was Rembrandt was trying to do in the paintings. The small bit about technique. If I hadn’t had my own career in archaeological science, I wouldn’t have known about oolites and coccolites and burnt bone and rust and all of those things and the way they contribute to pigments. I’m very interested in process both in poetry and art. So yes, that came from a part of my life, but it is also at a point in the poem where it is relevant to Lily’s life. The painting about Titus, Rembrandt’s son, whom he lost, is at that point where Lily has lost a child. I hope that these poems, which have very utilitarian roles as spacers, resonate with the life in the paintings because that is what the painter and the poet try to do, to create resonances between his or her work and the reader or viewer.

BM: Well that brings us to an interesting concept also. I always like to ask writers how they write. How do things come to you? How do you record them?

[KF indicates her 3X5-inch pocket notebook]

BM: What do you write in this little book?

KF: I write a word. I write a phrase. I very rarely write a whole poem. And then I work in a layout pad, (10X14 inches) by hand.

BM: So once again, art comes into your writing. So it’s not lined; it’s just blank sheets of paper.

KF: Yes. I’m very fussy about what gets onto a page. I love the look of writing, or I used to when I had better handwriting than I have now. And I draw continuously too. Writing is a very visual thing for me. So it starts somewhere in here [points to her intestines]….

BM: ….In your gut….

KF: …or it may be something that I thought or I felt, but it’s most likely to be an image.

BM: So you start with the feeling or an image. How do you go from a few words to the completed poem? What happens in between?

KF: I work out of my [small] notebook and into my big pad and I juggle and I write things that chime with what I began writing. That’s it mostly. But sometimes I will sit down at a computer and I will just follow a thread and I will write the poem line-by-line and it’s more of a deliberative process then. And it’s got a kind of internal logic. If you’re going to ask me which poems came out of which process, don’t, because I can’t remember.

BM: Are your poems more related to accretion or subtraction or both?

KF: Well, they accrete first, but they quite rapidly then go into diminution. I’m a slasher and burner. I’m not, I think, on the whole, in love with what I write to the extent that I can’t throw it away.

BM: Give me an example of a poem that you’ve revised extensively.

KF: Well, yes, A Fox Assisted Cure.

BM: So, how many drafts did you go through with Fox?

KF: Twenty, maybe.

BM: So that was your most recent chapbook, released just a month or so ago. Could you comment on this long poem? It has almost 21 different parts, where basically you have a disabled young girl, about eight to ten years old, and she’s got some sort of malady. Do you know what the diagnosis is?

KF: Yes, I do because I did actually consult a doctor about this. Initially she had a virus, you know, one of these rogue viruses that takes a toll and gives you the equivalent of ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy). And, as a result of that, her thyroid began to malfunction. So that by the time the poem begins, she is immensely fat, virtually speechless and imprisoned in her chair. As you know, Fox was a type of designer accessory picked up by this ersatz healer that her mother had gone to in desperation.

BM: He’s an unconventional, holistic type.

KF: Sort of—with an eye to the cash register. It’s a poem about finding a kind of liberation and about risk, I think. And it’s a poem that a lot of people would say should have never been written because one thing you can’t do these days, because the Cliché Police will have you, is write about foxes and children because it’s been done. But I thought: ‘Stuff it.’

BM: Now that’s your most recent published work. What are you working on as your next book or project?

KF: Yes, I have another book due from Shoestring this year.

BM: What are some of the poems about? Can you divulge any of that information yet?

KF: Well, it isn’t a question of “divulge,” it’s a question of life, death, the meaning of the universe….

KF and BM: ….and the number 42!


KF: ….as Deep Thought once said. It’s a mixture as always. There are a few more overtly political/ecological poems. There are poems about aging because I am knocking on a bit, so it’s a state that interests me. There are poems about death because the older you get, the closer it gets—should you be so lucky. And I hesitate to say that there are poems that are “spiritual” because I think that’s very suspect—especially for me as an atheist—and I only speak for myself but there are poems about the possibility of growing a “soul.” Not that I believe anything persists of it, but I think it’s an essential task—for anybody—especially for poets.

BM: That’s very interesting. We’ll be looking forward to this book. Thank you very much for your time.

KF: Thank you.

Iclal Akcay – La Piscine à la Amsterdam

La Piscine à la Amsterdam
by Iclal Akcay

Watching a film in the open air in Amsterdam, especially on Java Island, is not an easy task. Despite the news about outrageous 40-degree weather in some Mediterranean countries, these wind-country residents only taste the “Southern climes” via a movie by Jacques Deray. I spent an extra ten minutes looking for a Cashmere sweater in my summer wardrobe before running to the open venue, located across from the artistically sober Lloyd Hotel, so I was late and missed the first part of the movie. The setting is fantastic. This art lovers’ hotel’s little square, which normally serves as a pier to its customers arriving by boat, is filled with wooden benches and framed by a magical white screen. Drinks offered from the hotel’s mobile bar contribute to the intimacy.

I’m there with two friends. It took us three phone calls to find each other in the dark. As soon as we sit down, we take the liberty of making comments about everything during the entire film. This apparently upsets the guy sitting in front of us, causing him to move to the other end of the row in a silent protest, leaving me a bit embarrassed and feeling aloof. Whatever! We’re in sunny Côte d’Azur now.

Deray’s people, oblivious to the rest of the world beyond their problem-free setting, seem to be extremely content with their superficial lives of fun, fun, fun. As the story goes, Marianne (Romy Schneider) and Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) face an unexpected distraction at their love-nest villa in fashionable Saint-Tropez by the couple’s friend and Marianne’s ex-lover Harry (Maurice Roney) and his beautiful adolescent daughter, Penelope (Jane Birkin), who come to visit them.

During those lazy summer days, Marianne (an older-looking Romy Schneider) walks around confidently with a stiff hairdo, overly chic dresses and thick make-up. Determined to improve the atmosphere, a rather flamboyant Harry brings back a herd of “party people” each time he hits town in his convertible sports car. As Marianne flirts shamelessly and erotically with Harry at these parties, a more distant Jean-Paul uncomfortably becomes attracted to his friend’s daughter in front of an oblivious crowd.

Clearly led by their baser instincts, the main characters’ daily lives are disrupted by the murder of Harry by Jean-Paul in a wild attack at night during an argument when his friend insults him. The death scene is interesting and oddly resembles the murder scene in Visconti’s Stranger, adapted from Camus’ giant literary piece, which could be presented as perfect material for studying murder as part of human psychology. Both scenes are far more intelligent than their contemporaries in their study of “the moment of murder,” and they depict the background of a murderer’s act. In Deray’s La Piscine, a drunk Jean-Paul perhaps does not intend to kill his even more drunk friend, Harry. He rather tries to push him away with a piece of wood, wanting to silence his disturbing voice, just to get rid of him.

The unraveling drama results in transforming Marianne from an older, rejected woman, whose significance had been diminished by the emergence of the adolescent Penelope, into a woman of determination through the unfortunate event. Armed with the knowledge that could destroy her lover—that he is a murderer—she becomes strangely empowered by the surprising unfolding of events. She does not miss the opportunity to save Jean-Paul simply by lying to the detective. Through this act, she is spiritually and emotionally reborn, as this mission gives her all she needs: a fulfilling existence! She now is a caring mother. Although not wanting to be with her lover any longer, when her powerful detachment relights the fire in Jean-Paul, her real transformation takes place back in his arms; she becomes a magnet, a love goddess.

My friends don’t both agree with my conclusion about the affair. Being a scientist, Sofia intuitively grabs the essence of the hollowness in the movie. She has spent the last three years in chemistry labs of two different countries suffering intensively from being far away from her ex-boyfriend, Nick, who stayed at his parents’ home in a lazy village in southern Britain, spending his time writing application letters to different research centres around Europe. Our other friend, also coincidentally named Nick, rises to suggest going inside the hotel to get warm drinks. Sofia agrees and I follow them. In a minute, we’ve forgotten about the movie and collectively investigate the possibility of a reunion between Sofia and Nick while finding comfort in complaining about the lousy weather. It’s everybody’s favourite subject here. The kind of summer we long for, a Mediterranean one that is, never arrives in our city. And if it ever does, we all agree that it happens when we all are on holiday in a distant, warm country.

Alice Kocourek – When in Rome ….

When in Rome….
by Alice Kocourek

An annoying buzz wakes me. I can’t make out where it’s coming from. Or is it inside my head? My mouth and throat feel like I’ve just blow-dried them, making it very hard to swallow the tart taste tripping over my tongue. Too much white wine last night. I pull the covers over my head. The buzzing remains. Or was it the Limoncello? Definitely too much Limoncello. The bitter tang lingering in my mouth is proof that I’ve had one too many of that poisonous lemon liquor. Make that two too many.

It had been a fun night out though, with the Italian Hewlett Packard crew. Silvia, one of the permanent British staff members, insisted I come out with her and our fellow Italian colleagues. “It’s about time,” she told me in her squeaky voice. “Three weeks you’ve been in Rome and you still haven’t been out? It’s a positive disgrace. You have to come out with us.” And so, feeling somewhat pressured, I reluctantly went out. We ate, we drank, we danced. Lots. Somewhere in the middle of it all I began having a good time. I relaxed and thought to myself, when in Rome….

It was almost dawn when I rolled out of the taxi and stumbled into my hotel. The city was still sound asleep.

What time is it now? I turn over onto my side and feel my stomach churn. It feels like the gluey Limoncello has also made it to my eyes and has pasted them shut.

Buzz, buzz, buzz …. There it is again. Or has it been there all the time? I don’t know but I suddenly realize what it is, that annoying drone. It’s my phone! I’d put it on silent last night when we went out. A hoarse “Hello?” is all I manage and I’m sure I sound like a man.

“Alice? Is that you?” a voice blasts through the other side. “Al, I’ve been trying to reach you for ages!”

“Huh, Nick … stop shouting at me love, I’ve got a stinking headache.”

“I’m not shouting. Are you ill? It’s ten o’clock already.”

“Ten? Really? Feels more like six … still.” By now I have finally managed to sit up and half open my eyes. My dark hotel room seems to be swaying from left to right. At least the little I can make out of it. The heavy curtains are closed and only a very pushy ray of sun seems to have made it into my room.

“Have you been out?” Nick’s loud voice continues. “You know I’ve been waiting for your morning call, my coffee has gone cold.”

“Sorry,” I groan into the phone, “Yeah, Silvia took me out for a few drinks. What you doing? Sitting outside?”

“Been out for a few drinks, eh? You know you sound like shit.”


“Anyway, it’s a beautiful day here. Been sitting out on the balcony with the cats.” His voice has gone softer now, or perhaps I’m more awake.

The cats. The balcony. Nick. I rub my temple. “Wish I were there with you. This hotel room stinks.” I’m sitting up straight now and looking around my small and shady room. The bed takes up most of the space, leaving only some room for a writing table pushed against the wall and a single chair. My clothes dropped on top look like a collapsed corpse. The art-deco wallpaper flowers look wilted. “I wish I were home. I miss our morning coffees out on the balcony. I miss the cats. I don’t want to be here anymore.”

“Well, it’s you who insisted on going to Rome for six weeks. I told you, you’d miss us.”

“Nick, not now. I don’t feel good.”

“You shouldn’t have drunk so much. Why did you have to go out in the first place, you don’t like going out?”

“Oh c’mon, not now …. We’ll talk later OK? I feel claustrophobic. I need to get out.”

“OK, go and have breakfast and call me when you’re feeling better.” There’s a long silence. “Love you.”

“I know.” A hysterical mosquito buzzing in front of me disrupts another long silence. I manage a strained “Love you too,” before I start wafting the insect off with my phone. “Don’t you dare touch me, creepy creature.”

After this sudden anti-bug outburst, my head hurts even more. I need some fresh air, some food and some sleep; I feel cold. Wretched air-con.

A gentle spring sun greets me as I walk out of the hotel onto the Piazza Bartolomeo Gastaldi. The pink cherry blossoms sway against the blue sky and the song of a thrush fills the air. It’s only about 20 metres walk to Antonio’s Alimentari, but when I walk through the colourful beads of the flycatcher hung above the door, I feel warmed-up and a sudden appetite takes over.

Antonio welcomes me with his usual bright smile and enthusiastic gestures; “Buongiorno signora Alice.”

Over the last three weeks I’ve come to like the way of the Romans, it’s not just what they say, beautifully lyrical to a cold Northern European as I am, but the way in which they say it, with their whole body and soul. Each mundane sentence sounds like an exquisite opera, each gesture an elegant dance.

Buongiorno Antonio. How are you today?” Although I still feel lightheaded, I twirl around the fruit stand. “You’ve got some beautiful peaches again today,” I sing to him in English. We struck a deal two weeks ago. I would teach Antonio some English and he would return the favour in Italian. A win-win situation, as far as I’m concerned.

I pick one pink peach and walk over to the glass covered food display and choose two slices of pizza, one with extra sun-dried tomatoes and the other with mozzarella. As a little extra, to spoil myself, I also decide to take a slice of apricot cake.

Antonio carefully wraps them all in paper and hands them over. “Godere della bella giornata di sole, enjoy the sun, signora Alice.”

“Oh, I will, Antonio. I’m going to relax somewhere in the shade in the Villa Borghese, a domani. Ciao!”

Back out on the street, armed with all the delights, I continue my walk to the Villa Borghese, my favourite public park. It’s only about a ten-minute walk from my hotel and even when going into the city centre, I walk through the park and down the Spanish Steps, leading into the heart of Rome. Right now I want to avoid the crowds. All I want is to loosen myself of this morning’s sickly feeling and unwind on the soft moss, away from everyone.

Walking further down the Via Luigi Luciani, it strikes me how green Rome really is. It has majestic plane trees alongside the stately boulevards, charming cherry and apple blossoms in the smaller streets and the many umbrella pine trees looking as ancient and mysterious as the Roman ruins resting in their shade. On the balconies people are growing yuccas, olive trees, prickly cactuses and of course grannies geraniums in terracotta pots and colourful plastic containers in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Scooters zoom past as I carefully cross the wide Via Ulisse Aldrovandi. A guy shouts out at me: “Ciao, bella!” and disappears off hooting a taxi for being too slow.

Bella, bella,” I say it out loud and, feeling like a princess, I enter the Villa Borghese.

A gravel path leads me through a lush garden, landscaped in a classical 18th-century style where green slopes are set around a large artificial lake. It’s still quiet and only a few people are walking through the park, some hand-in-hand, a solitary jogger runs past and I see a few elderly people sitting on the iron benches reading.

On the grass in the shade, I spread out my blanket and sit down. I have a bit of a giggle looking at the beige blanket. It’s just so fantastically tacky: the city’s twin founders, Romulus and Remus, are embroidered on it while suckling their wolf mother. It’s so cheesy I just simply had to buy it.

Now that I’ve finally made myself comfortable, I have a bite to eat and try to nap. I close my eyes and I hear the soft zooming of a nearby insect, ducks scatter up from the lake, a pigeon coos; in the distant I can hear the monotonous buzz of the city. It doesn’t take long for me to doze off.

It’s not just an ant tickling my bare arm, but something I can’t quite put my finger on that wakes me. It’s almost as if I can feel someone’s breath, hear someone exhaling. Close to me. Too close.

I open my eyes. For the second time today I feel like everything around me is moving from left to right. Staring up to the sky, the leaves of the trees are actually swaying in the soft breeze. It’s not just my imagination. I press myself up and rest on my elbows. Instead of seeing the lake, I’m looking straight at a man. Sitting. Next to me. I look straight into his eyes.

In one fast move, I sit up and pull my feet towards me. My head hurts from moving too quickly and for a moment I’m too stunned to do anything. The man just sits there and smiles at me. He’s young. Has slender long arms and legs. Wearing jeans, white shirt, unbuttoned, and sandals. He’s got a slim face, large square glasses and pointy, pursed lips. He looks like a giant mosquito.

What the hell is he doing sitting so close to me? And how long has he been sitting there? I’m in no mood for a confrontation. With a big huff I get up and, with great force, I pull the blanket from the ground and walk away.

A little further I find a new spot. Lay out my blanket and lie down. Sure enough, I hear his heavy breathing again. I can’t believe it as I open my eyes. Once more the mosquito man is sitting next to me. Even closer now. I’ve had enough. I grab my sandal and start fastening the strap around my left foot. The man moves forward and, as if in slow motion, I watch him bend over and reach for my right foot. He grabs hold of it and with his pursed lips starts kissing it. Starts kissing my dirty bare foot!

From deep within me I unleash the Northern girl I am. “Oi, you wanker!” I shout at him and with my newly acquired Roman passion, start hitting him with my sandal. “Get the fuck off me, you creep!”

Scusi, scusi, sorree…” The man jumps up and starts running off.

Scusi?” I yell after him. My whole body and soul I pour into my words and gestures. “Fucking scuzi? You dirty bastard!” Around me people stop and start pointing at me. ‘Yeah, now suddenly you notice me?’ I can’t believe this. Ants are crawling over my blanket and I notice that they have crawled into my paper bag with my apricot tart. “Here you dirty bastard, this is what you get from me.” I crush the paper bag under my feet. The beige blanket has a big patch of crushed cake on it. Romulus and Remus are covered in apricot jam and black from the soil from my feet.

I’m sweating and my hands are sticky. I want to go home. Back to the hotel. The sunlight is hurting my eyes. My head. Briskly I walk down the gravel path. My feet are all black from kicking up dirt and sand.

At the busy and dangerous crossing of Via Ulisse Aldrovandi, I have to stop to wait for the green light. As I’m waiting, a sign stuck to the traffic light catches my eye. In bold red letters it says: ATTENZIONE, FERMARE LA ZANZARE TIGRE. STOP THE TIGER MOSQUITO. It shows a little drawing depicting potted plants with water saucers underneath that are crossed through with big red X’s.

I look up at the balconies, at all the pots and plants. If you all would listen for once, you wouldn’t have a tiger mosquito problem. People have died from their bites. From dengue fever for heaven’s sakes.

Scooters and taxis and old Fiats with their disgusting fumes steer past me, their noise loud and irritating. A guy on a Vespa shouts to a girl on the other side of the road, hardly able to take his eyes off of her and her short skirt. Tooooooot! He almost crashes into a taxi in front of him. The taxi driver starts yelling and the traffic comes to a chaotic halt. I shake my head as I cross the road. If only people in this country would keep their eyes off all that’s pretty and focus on what’s important. Official announcements. The road. National safety. Look deeper. Fix the damned holes in the road. I almost sprain my ankle as I step into one. Bah, no wonder this country is politically unstable.

As soon as I walk through the sliding doors at the hotel, the cool, air-conditioned air soothes me. I feel like I can breathe again. The cold marble floors are immaculately clean, the gentleman at the reception acknowledges me with a friendly nod. I’m home.

Back in my room, I fall onto my bed. My soft, comfortable bed. Since I’ve been gone, the cleaning lady has been and my whole room is neat and tidy. The sun is shyly coming through the partly drawn blinds. The art-deco wallpaper flowers seem to blossom in the soft light.

A warm bath, lathering soap smelling of lavender, cleans my dirty feet and washes away the mosquito man’s invisible stains. My clothes and the tacky Romulus and Remus blanket are in the trusted hands of the hotel’s dry-cleaning service, ready for use again in just a few days. I pick up my phone from my bag and notice that Nick has sent me a text: Sorry about this morning. I just miss you. Love you baby and enjoy being in Rome. Maybe ring Silvia for some company. XN

I hold the phone close to me and whisper a soft “I love you too.” I know Nick means well, but Silvia can wait till Monday. I might even go out with her again next weekend, but for now, I’ll just turn my phone off entirely. I really don’t want to be disrupted again.

Clean and content, I roll back into the bed and close my eyes. Can I hear anything? No, all is quiet. No zooming insects, no buzzing phones. Simply silence. I pull the covers tighter and reach over for the room service menu. I’m going to order myself a nice meal. Spaghetti carbonara and a bottle of Chianti. After all, when in Rome….