Chapter 1: The Berninis 1 The Berninis
Three months later
A stranger is staring at me. I drop my shoulder, glimpse him over it. He is tall. He crosses the room, moving toward me with a long stride, smooth and sure. The stranger’s stare fastens, binds me tighter to him as he moves closer. His eyes scrape across my body, then he looks away, back, away, then skips discretion and takes in my length, eyes prowling up and down. Newness incites the eye and I am always a new thing. Once accustomed, he turns from me and looks at the Bernini sculpture in front of us, a scene from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Now it is my turn to stare.
The stranger is built by blueprint and ruler. Jaw to neck, shoulder to torso, hip to knee: a body of straight lines, design, intention. I’m flushed, too warm, I stink, sweat drips, rivulets of self-reproach; he is near me now, dry and smiling; it unnerves me, his dryness. I’d left my hotel at noon: an error. Heat made the streets shimmer. The air was sticky and humid as a mouth. Dust, rising in fine mists, drifted over me, left me gritty.
Behind us, the Galleria Borghese bursts with tourists; they push in close, pen us in, making a frame around me and the stranger. From a distance we might look like polite people appreciating a famous sculpture, but from where I stand, inside the mass, I can see all the sly, slow glances, flushed faces, dilations, smiles, pulses, and swells, and I am caught in their undertone, washed by their waves of red energy. Our eyes hang on the sculpture at a single juncture, where Pluto’s hand presses deep into Proserpine’s naked leg.
The sculpture depicts a story from Roman mythology. One version goes like this: Pluto offends Venus, the goddess of love. As an act of revenge, she tells Cupid to send his arrow through Pluto’s heart, afflicting him instantly with a love-like madness. Proserpine, the daughter of the goddess Ceres, is nearby picking flowers. Pluto, god of the Underworld, abducts her, forcing her away from nature and toward the safety of the dark and isolated world he rules.
Bernini stills, for our consideration, the moment when Pluto sees Proserpine and takes her, holds her roughly. He wraps a hard hand around her thigh, and at that point of contact Bernini has made metamorphic rock soft, impossibly. The way marble fingers sink into marble flesh, the eroticism of this aggression—it makes me uneasy, but I don’t look away and neither does anyone else.
The stranger inches closer. His elbow finds my shoulder and stays. Where we touch becomes a whole sensate world made of heat, weight, a scent like wet leaves. Then his arm parts from mine, just barely, and the world expands to that narrow space that separates us, and through that space the possibility of adventure trembles forth. Fine hairs and ridged red flesh rise to bridge the gap between my body and his. My thoughts crawl along my skin. The stranger and I take breaths in unison, suspended in anticipation of the other’s gesture. I imagine the stranger grasping me as Pluto grasps Proserpine. He leans closer and a budding warmth in me blossoms. A thought toward pleasure: to see him kneel and lick Rome’s dust from my bare leg. Just then the stranger tips forward and inhales sharply as if this would dislodge a tiny particle of the Bernini that he could ingest, something to keep safe inside himself long after he’s left the museum. He sits back on his heels, nods to the statue—an odd gesture of, perhaps, respect—and moves on without me, winding through the crowds. I stand alone a while longer and stare at the goose bumps raised and rippled, carved by a tool onto Proserpine.
In other depictions of this myth, artists paint a weaker heroine. Dürer etches Proserpine (Proserpina to Bernini, Persephone to the Greeks) as a dizzying pinwheel of limbs, the center point of which are her breasts, bulging comically like bugged-out eyes. Alessandro Allori shows her placid and blank, seemingly bored by her kidnapping. Rubens bends her back over the edge of Pluto’s speeding chariot, her will lost in the blur of momentum. Rembrandt’s Proserpine limply claws at Pluto’s face from a vacant state. Theodoor van Thulden leaves her stunned, head tilted up, arms skyward, as if asking for a better god to intervene and save her from her fate.
But Bernini’s Proserpine is alive.
Her body is strong, and she torques it forcefully against the god, trying to free herself. She smashes the hardest part of her palm into Pluto’s face. He grimaces. Bernini leaves Pluto dazed, off-balance, faltering, reminding us that Cupid’s arrow kidnaps his agency, too. Ovid’s myth tells of two forced transformations and Bernini shows us two people in motion, struggling unsuccessfully against their fate. The statue is bright, the brightest thing in the room, and it hums with the energy of the aggrieved—Pluto hurts Venus who hurts Pluto who hurts Proserpine; this circular hurt, placed on Proserpine’s thigh, her stone flesh yielding below the god’s grasp. It is stupefying: I am dimmed by awe, aversion, desire.
I’ve been standing too long and my right hip begins its familiar twinge. If I don’t find a place to lie down, stretch, and rest, my body will start to lock up. The straps of my backpack are slightly uneven, and I can already feel the pressure causing the muscles on the right side of my curved spine to cramp.
I find my neutral room and count 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8.
Slowly, I pass by the sculpture. There is other art to see here. I stop for balance and to rest. My back is stiff and stiffens more. Pain transforms the floor’s stubborn slant; reorders it, distorts, unmoors; the plane is changed, both breadth and pitch. The pull of all this art is gone. Everything is just a thing now. Pain breaks my bond with all but it.
I look for an exit sign and walk into a new room and the stranger is there.
He faces away from me, but the line of his shoulder straightens my way, aims. He knows I’m near. I stare a moment too long, and he turns toward me. I flinch, recover, then move to study without attention the nearest painting, anything other than him. He watches me through the room. What a feeling this gives me. It electrifies the experience of looking elsewhere. I track his graceful maneuvering through the crowd. His long consideration of a piece of art, his eyes flicking up to a gilded ceiling—it is all for my benefit. I try to find enough energy to imagine a divergent reality, one in which I become a beautiful body blushing with desire, pain numbed, mind blank, dragged into the present moment by lust and left there, confused and alert. I follow him. He crosses the room, so I do, too; he turns a corner, I turn; he is steps ahead, his scent seeks me, the length of his neck is the length of my name; I am possessed, not by him, but by bloated, ornate reverie, by possibility. A curtain lifts to reveal a new narrative: a lady meets a stranger and now a real story can begin.
When I was six, I held my father’s hand as he followed a red-haired woman around a department store. She was a stranger, but regarded my father with a knowledge I didn’t understand. She looked at him until he lowered his eyes. She moved through the aisles, knowing he would follow, and he did. I walked behind my father, hidden from the woman, but she was not hidden from me. She wore a white dress, the precise image of which I can recall as if she were in front of me now in the Galleria Borghese. Delicate, loose, translucent. Often, I’ve fought the urge to buy something similar, wondering what effect a dress like that might have on me. My father had squeezed my hand. He’d whispered, Keep up, keep up.
I watch my stranger in the Galleria. Would I follow him out of the museum and into an imaginary night? He’s ahead of me in the grand hall, keep up, keep up, but I can’t keep up. My hip stops me. I rest against a wall. The pursuit is over, and I am, again, only myself: a tired mom, overheated and unable, unwilling, to keep walking. The stranger pauses in a far-off doorway, maybe waiting for me, but it’s too late, my fantasy deflates, I’m beat, so beat, museums are exhausting, the day is done; the opening through which the unexpected could emerge is now closed, and I want to go home, or at least to the hotel and its air-conditioning.
I stand in the vestibule, just ahead of the exit, to get my fill of free Wi-Fi before leaving. I cycle through my email and social media accounts. A text pops up.
Isn’t it a bit strange (it’s my mother) to go to Italy without telling anyone?
I don’t tell her the truth because I don’t know it. Whatever it is will be embarrassing. If I tell her about Colin and Jay at the bar, what they’d said to me and what I’d said to them and how it had shifted something in me, how it had taken me from my family and put me on a plane to Rome—well, I can already see her rolling her eyes, heavy sighs all lined up and waiting.
Strange how? I text back.
My mother delivers disapproval in the form of questions. What happened to your PhD?
Nothing happened to it, I respond.
Should something have happened? Should work have happened?
Dots undulate, bubble up, then dissolve into the depths below my cell phone screen. My mother quits the inquisition. I imagine her frowning at her screen, eyebrow raised. Her silence voices her real concerns: my son, my husband, my new job; the common thread: my abandoned priorities.
I put my phone in the pocket of my dress. I’m ready to leave. I grimace and bend at a drinking fountain. I feel the approach of a body behind me. A voice says, “Beautiful.”
When I right myself, the stranger is there, staring.
“Bellissimo? Bello? You speak English?” the stranger continues. He’s American. I nod and follow the trajectory of his hand as it rises and begins to gesture all around us. “Beautiful,” he says.
“The museum?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “Did you get in for free?” I try, a last hope, to twist this question into a pickup line, but it won’t go.
My father tried one of his many pickup lines on the red-haired woman in the white dress in the department store. She was the physical opposite of my mother, not just because my mother’s skin, eyes, hair were all darker, but also because of the way the red-haired woman moved. She floated as if underwater and she touched things just to touch. She fondled a mattress on display, used her hand to rub its edge, an errant caress to signal something, to put a scent into the air. My mother might have crisply flipped a sale tag or read a warranty, but she would not have engaged in this musky circling. The red-haired woman ran her fingers across the silky threads stitched into the mattress and then, under my father’s careful gaze, she’d turned her hand over, exposing her soft, open palm. And my father stopped her. He held her at the elbow, fingers pressing in on soft, white skin.
The stranger is talking to me. He says, “This building itself, right?”
“Is what?” I ask. I’ve missed something.
“Is the most beautiful part, more beautiful than anything in it.”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
“Do you think only art can be beautiful?” I hear a hiss and then a clicking sound, his tongue against his teeth. “Ah, ah, ah,” he says, scolding me as dogs are scolded.
“No,” I say.
“Only bodies?” He looks at me with discomfort for a moment.
Oh, I think, I know what this is now.
He’s got that itch-in-the-brain look, like he’s seen something go askew and he just needs to fix it, to fix something. My disability is obvious, but its details are unclear; to look at me is to feel information both shown and withheld. These ideas in opposition create cognitive dissonance and this makes people uncomfortable in a way not reducible to prejudice alone. There are patterns of reactions to this dissonance. People stare, mostly without realizing it. Some people cannot feel at ease around me until they know what they want to know. Once, at a restaurant, a woman snapped her fingers as I passed by her table and said, “Explain yourself.”
The stranger needs to talk at me, needs to explain and label. He wants an uncertain thing to yield to a category assigned by his reason.
“What people don’t realize is—” He keeps talking and I let him, but I’ve already retreated to the neutral room in my head where I’m having a different conversation with no one. He’s performing a familiar soliloquy about how beauty standards are really made up by marketers and shift with the times and I’m nodding politely, waiting for the moment to pass. I’ve been here before and I know what comes next. In a minute he’ll tell me beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
“But this building is objectively beautiful. Don’t you agree?” he asks.
“No,” I say. “I can’t think of anything objectively beautiful.”
“I think it’s stunning. Don’t you think it’s stunning?”
“No, not this one.”
“Well, it’s all subjective, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think so, no.”
“Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?”
“I don’t think anyone who says this knows what it means.”
“Or rather, it has a meaning no one believes. It’s a silencing sentence, one that reduces rather than explores one of the most exhilarating human experiences. The experience of beauty. What a shame.”
Of course, my half of the dialogue happens only in my head. I am not a participant in the present moment. I do not want to talk to this guy. I nod and tell him, Sure, the building is fine, it’s great, it’s beautiful, and I wait in the neutral room for this conversation, a repeat of so many others, to end.
The stranger says, “My ticket cost a lot. You are lucky.”
“Sorry?” I say.
“Don’t tell me you paid? Didn’t you see the sign when you entered? People with your situation get in free to most museums. Next time, I’ll borrow a crutch.” I smile and he smiles.
“Oh,” he says, watching me. “I’m not being offensive. I work with people like you. I work for people like you.” The stranger tells me his name is Joel. He’s an acupuncturist from South Florida.
“I saw you in there before,” he says, looking up and down the length of me again, “and I just wanted to ask—”
“Oh, no thank you—”
“What is your nomenclature?”
“Look,” he says, “I’m not going for the three f’s.”
I want to know what the three f’s are. I wait. He’s hooked me and he knows it. He waits. We’re at an impasse. His furry eyebrows, which seemed distinctive only moments ago, now look like fat caterpillars stuck in skin. Joel’s black hair, soft as cat fur before, looks brittle and rough. He runs his hands through his hair and bits of skin flake and rain down on his shoulders. His fingernails, oily.
Joel says, “Fame, fortune, and favor.”
“Ah,” I say.
“You know what I mean?”
“I don’t,” I say.
“I’m not trying to sell you something. Not at all. I specialize in malfunction of extremities. I couldn’t help but notice—”
“No, thank you.” I turn my back and drink again from the water fountain.
“Sorry, it’s a professional curiosity, if you could just—”
“No, thank you,” I say.
“Excuse me,” says Joel. He doesn’t want to be interrupted. “I just wanted to help.” He exhales through his nose. “I am offering to help you. I am actually willing to help you. You just have to tell me—”
People are quick to assure me that they are not intruders. They insist they are actually willing to help me. There are these oils, strangers tell me, these tinctures, herbs, powders, pills, yoga poses, meditation techniques, mantras, yodels, chants, supplements, hemp seeds, CBDs, drugs, gemstones, crystals, preachers, energy fixers, energy shifters, people who will realign all my energies, line them up just right; or, some will say, Let me lay my hands upon you for I am a vessel of the Lord whose love will heal your body, which is not the part I most want healed.
“I’m not a bad guy,” says Joel from South Florida. He sees I am uncomfortable and that is making him uncomfortable, and he wants me to absolve him, and he wants me to help him believe, as everyone does, that all is pardoned by good intention.
“I understand,” I say.
I want a dark room and a cool glass of water. Pain delays anger but it will find me later in the night. I let Joel hand me his business card. He presses it against my palm, leans in; a whisper on the wind, If you’re ever in Florida… We part, the curtain falls. Later, I will replay this conversation over and over, thinking of better things to say, thinking of a better version of myself, a faster, smarter, more certain version. But in that moment in Rome, I was someone whose first and only impulse in the face of discomfort was to retreat, to leave my body nodding while the rest of me, the realest parts of me, waited in the neutral room. I did not see another choice because I was not yet aware I was making one.
I stand alone in the bathroom at the Galleria Borghese. I pat my cheeks with cold water. My face in the mirror: swollen, sweating, and red, and oh god, my awful face, flushed, foul, and confused. This face floated behind the stranger, followed him from room to room. Poor guy, poor Joel, tracked by a troll oozing a crimson, ghoulish lust. I am vibrating, but no, not me, my phone. My mother is texting again. I pull my phone from my pocket to read her text, but it dies in my hand. I am focused on all the wrong problems. For weeks I’d read up on art in Italy like there’d be an exam to pass later but had failed to imagine just physically being present in Rome and needing basic, sustaining things like dinner plans, a water bottle, a European plug adapter.
I’d not thought about practicality because I don’t want practical things to happen. I want an event, something like a bar behind a phone booth, a séance at a village festival, a lever to pull, a secret revealed, a mountain guide to guide me, a mystic in the alley, a mystery to solve, a man on the run, anything, anything at all, but I am not of the ilk who discover such things. I am neither sensible nor adventurous. I am someone who can assemble an excellent bibliography and call it knowledge. I’d prepared for Rome by reading fat biographies of Bernini, accumulating piles of facts about the past, none of which would lead me to an experience in the present.
The afternoon sun pummels the façade of the Galleria. The tourists and I stand outside on the lawn and take pictures. A woman in a green hat, heavy camera in hand, breaks from her family, gestures to me, asks if I’d like her to take my picture in front of the museum. I shake my head no. I find a shady spot in the surrounding gardens and I lie down flat on my back and begin my stretches, crossing my right leg over my torso until a warm and relieving ache radiates through my hip. I stare at the sky. Something darkens the space above, the same woman in the hat leans over me and asks if I’m OK. I nod my head. Yes, I’m fine.
Sitting up, I see Joel standing in front of the Galleria Borghese, admiring it below a sun that bleaches them both. Perhaps Joel sees himself reflected. Two bodies, the Galleria and Joel, ivory and grand; two testaments to the enduring idea from the ancient Greeks and Romans that beauty is rooted in symmetry, measure, order. Perfect circles, straight lines, squares. Joel and the building, inscribed in the same circle of thought, no, the same repeating circles of thought, concentric, emanating out, over and over.
The Galleria’s columns, its strict Palladian proportions, come from classical formalism, from the temples erected by the ancient Greeks, and from Vitruvius, whose De architectura is the only extant instructional architecture text from antiquity. Vitruvius tells us that man and building are best built in accordance with mathematical principles. Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man displays man’s ideal proportions, perfectly inscribable within circle and square. The Vitruvian Man is a descendant of the Doryphoros, the masterpiece of Polykleitos, a beloved sculptor from fifth-century BCE Athens. Polykleitos’s statue is of a spear bearer who is shown stepping forward, torso curved, his weight on the right leg, his left at ease, one hand curled around a phantom weapon.
In The Canon, a companion treatise, Polykleitos detailed the exact measurements of each part of the spear bearer’s body as well as the precise distances between them. “Such perfection in proportion,” wrote the physician Galen of the sculpture seven hundred years later, “comes about via an exact commensurability of all the body’s parts to one another: of finger to finger and of these to the hand and wrist, of these to the forearm, of the forearm to the upper arm; of the equivalent parts of the leg; and to everything else.”
Both the treatise and sculpture are lost, although there exists—in various stages of deterioration and imperfection—Roman copies remade in marble. The most famous copy was pulled from the ashes of Pompeii.
For the Greeks, these perfect proportions were not random but were drawn from an intricate and holy design observable in the natural world. So, orderliness in the human body was proof of that person’s innate, divine harmony; to be beautiful was to have one’s parts function together in perfect relation to a whole, just as parts of nature function together. Temple, torso, tree, leaf, wing, rose, all lined up by the eye of God; His patterns repeating everywhere: buildings built by the golden ratio; fractal branching in the trees above me; on the skin of the fruit that falls from the tree; on Joel’s skin; and on the wings of the dragonfly that passes overhead: Voronoi tessellation.
Beauty could be caught and pinned by the regulating forces of design, measurement, order. Beauty could be whittled down to principles. Measure and proportion are everywhere identified with beauty and virtue; Plato wrote, “Beauty, proportion, and truth… considered as one.”
But my eye gets bored traveling from one end of the Galleria to the other. Halfway through, I’ve seen all there is to see. Symmetry is predictable; I am soothed but not surprised. To say that beauty was merely the result of definite measurement deflated the mystery of the aesthetic experience: that bodily recognition, an ancient sense tuned to beauty, a physical seizing of beauty and of beauty’s dissonance; a welcome fever, a palpitant thrill, pleasure ill at ease, a turned stomach, a chill, prickling hairs, goose bumps, high attention. And I have felt that high attention in the presence of art, people, ideas, sounds, storms, sentences, sunsets, streams and rivers and oceans, colors, efforts, failures, loss, pain, and how much of this can be measured? It is both there and not, neither subjective nor objective. I like the vastness. I want to keep the idea of beauty like a stone in my hand, turning it over and over.
But maybe I am dismissing the ancient ideals because they don’t fit the story I tell myself about myself. My body did not fit into any narrative of order, proportion, plan. What was my lineage and where was it celebrated? In truth, I might find the Galleria building beautiful had I been born looking more like Joel or if I were at least touched, loved, fucked, chosen by this type of beauty. Maybe then I would submit to its rigid ideals if I were recognized as worthy of experiencing them.
Just as falsehoods threatened truth, disorder threatened beauty.
“Ugliness,” warned Plutarch, “is immediately ready to come into being if only one chance element is omitted or inserted out of place.”
The muscles around my spine throb and so I stay in the grass a while longer, willing the pain to subside. I lift the Bernini book, heavy as a brick, from my bag, knowing I can read for an amount of time determined solely by me. I can stay on my back for the exact number of minutes it takes for me to feel a bit better and I will not be embarrassed for how long it’s taking and I am not delaying anyone because there is no one with me to delay, and if I’m triggering pity from passersby, I don’t notice because I’m staring above at the sky again, free from the eyes of others, and I am so grateful to be alone.
People usually notice my height first. I’m short. Then they notice the way I walk, then that my legs from the knees down and my feet are underdeveloped and disproportionate to the rest of my body. My spine is curved, which makes my back arch forward. I have hip dysplasia, which means my hip joints are misaligned and unstable—the ball part of the joint grinds on a flat plane of bone in search of a socket that never formed. This hurts and I’m never not aware of it; pain plays a note I hear in all my waking moments. I walk by rolling my hips, which gives me a side-to-side gait. If I wear my hair in a long ponytail, it whips back and forth like a pendulum. I move slowly. I’m slow on stairs, but I can go up them if there is a railing. My arms are strong and I pull myself up as much as walk up stairs. The medical name for my disability is sacral agenesis. I was born without a sacrum, the bone that connects the spine to the pelvis. Agenesis, from the Greek, meaning a lack or failure to generate. My missing sacrum, my omitted element.
I want to explore more of the Borghese Gardens but the sun evaporates my plans, leaves me in a dazed state of generalized regret. Happy families pedal past me on canopied quadricycles. A man working the rental stand waves me over, then has second thoughts and nods an apology. I stand at a fountain, gulp water, pant, wonder how much of Rome I can skip. Joel and his eye on me had been a spike of excitement in an otherwise flatlined day.
I was supposed to be in Milan but had switched the ticket. I’d convinced myself it would be a failure beyond redemption to come all the way to Italy without seeing the Bernini sculptures in the Galleria Borghese. I held an operating belief that proximity to beauty was transformative, but what I might be transformed into—I’d not thought that part through. And now I have seen the Berninis and if I am changed it is not for the better. I remember the feeling of standing next to Joel, before he’d spoken to me. I remember looking with him at Proserpine.
I have a hunger to be elsewhere and otherwise. In an essay my father wrote right after my birth, he described himself as having a “motorcycle personality,” meaning that he was unstable when idling but solid on the move. He wanted to be where things were in a state of becoming. He did not like to be firmly set in the present. He was fearful of stillness. I’d inherited this fear. I, too, want to go where everything is new, which means I always want to be somewhere other than where I am.
I walk toward the bus. People pass me on the sidewalk. I’m walking too slowly. I don’t belong here. I don’t know how to fit into the stream of forward movement. I feel the absurd weight of the Bernini biography in my backpack and am annoyed by myself and all my impulses. I’d brought the book—and, to further the cliché, a notebook (a Moleskine!)—with the thought of lounging all day in the Borghese Gardens, reading and writing, a possibility that disintegrated in the first minute spent below the vile and reckless sun.
I’d been restless in the months following the night in the bar with Colin and Jay and I am restless still, but it strikes me as disingenuous and of a derivative variety, cribbed from the travel writers I’d read and admired who bore me no similarity. That literary genre offered mostly white, able-bodied, unencumbered men of means, many of whom were alchemists able to transform the busy strangers they met in foreign lands into drug-sharers, secret-havers, exotic sex partners. The few female travel writers permitted in print were usually mourning the death of something—their mothers, brothers, sisters, entire families, dogs, marriages. I have no transfiguring powers and nothing yet to mourn. I can only perform an embarrassing impersonation of someone else, someone suited to the experience of moving around the world. I cling to an uncritical certainty that I’m excluded from travel and its literature by body and bank account. But recently my circumstances had changed.
There is a kind of traveler who, upon returning home, languishes in the miseries of the trip. A fair number of this type end up in philosophy graduate programs. Others end up writers in New York. They can be sighted skulking the outer edges of readings or colloquiums and at the receptions that follow, where they’d frown and recount how their recent trip had been swallowed up by the (agonizing!) attempt to read a long (Russian) novel or a dense (Marxist) theoretical or historical (obscure, but of great importance) text, all while on the wrong train at the worst time.
They were also mostly white, able-bodied, unencumbered men of means, who lugged their Lukács from Brooklyn to Paris to Latvia to Bali to Budapest where they attended conferences or chipped away at dissertation research. They spent mornings moping at the archives and nights drinking at the bars. God, it was awful, they’d tell me with a wink. You wouldn’t believe how terrible it was for them to be driven out of Spain by their lover’s jealous boyfriend or groped through glory holes in Berlin or punched out at bachelor parties in Bratislava—utter agony!—but also all necessary! Necessary to the work of thinking, writing, of being serious, and, most importantly, necessary to the work of not becoming their fathers.
They’d return to New York when it was time to drink with New Yorkers and deliver lectures or readings to new audiences. These friends of mine, I guess, identical in their fawning joylessness, would tell the sensational morsels of their stories in flat tones, daring me into a wide-eyed reaction that would betray my innocence and lack of life experience. Now here I was doing my bad imitation of their bad imitation of the men we’d read about all our lives: the ascetics, the hermits, the flâneurs, the philosophers, the poets, the bards, the peripatetic Greeks who believed one had to be in motion to have deep thoughts; Wordsworth with all his walking; Socrates, Laurie Lee, Lawrence of Arabia; men who left normal life to go to the mountain, to sit on the hilltop, to roam the deserts, forests, glaciers, oceans; men who voyage alone, always alone, removed in mind, body, and spirit, kept clean of the mud of the world because only then could they finally, finally think clearly.
As a reaction to all I felt excluded from, I often found myself lifting my class status like a shield. My husband, Andrew, and I had both grown up in the rural Midwest. Andrew’s parents had never married. He’d been raised by his mother, an itinerant pastor who moved yearly, shuffling Andrew from school to school, house to house, in one small, tornado-blown Missouri town after another. I’d been raised by my mother, a grade school teacher, on her farm in Kansas. Andrew and I moved to New York with four suitcases, three grand, and an infant. We had family support solely in the sense that our mothers loved us and did their best to stomach our choices. I started a philosophy PhD and adjuncted for pathetic wages at colleges across the tristate area, lesson planning and grading papers while on subways and commuter rails. My main access to the esteem of my peers—who were, with few exceptions, mostly young, white, able-bodied men with family money—was in how little I had despite how hard I worked. This, plus my disability, plus motherhood, bathed me in a tragic light, which, if I stepped into it just right, lit me up with the look of moral superiority. I could wield this as a weapon to ward off the axe swing of exclusion, and it would make me feel better for a moment but ultimately only deepened the cuts that kept me from others.
Andrew worked the kitchen in a sports bar in Manhattan, frying food for drunk fans who tipped if their teams won. His shifts ended in the early hours of morning. He slept on the subway back to Brooklyn, often missing his stop, waking with a kick from the conductor as the train stalled at Broadway Junction. He made it home in time for me to hand over Wolfgang and kiss him goodbye as I rushed out the door on my way to teach another class.
Being broke had a rhythm, a culture, codes, a language I spoke fluently, a narrative I understood. But then, a week before the night in the bar in Brooklyn with Jay and Colin, I’d been called into the dean’s office at one of the schools where I adjuncted and was unceremoniously offered a full-time, salaried position. I’d completed a PhD in English before starting my second in philosophy, so I was qualified to cover a range of humanities courses and this made me a cheap hire for the school, which was small and just needed someone to teach a lot. The pay was fair, the benefits were fair, and, best of all, I didn’t have to go out and sell myself on the academic job market. In the space of a minute, my most pressing problems disappeared. I felt light-headed, relieved, and then I felt a sadness that pinned me in my seat.
I tried to listen as the dean explained my new role, but her voice cut in and out and my vision winnowed. I felt relief, but also loss. I’d been working toward this exact goal for years and now my efforts had paid off, but instead of pride, I felt the nausea of inauthenticity. I’d entered the dean’s office anxious about every dollar I spent and walked out middle class. I signed away a life I knew, one in which the trip I was on to Rome would have been inconceivable. This job gave me and my family a stability we so desperately needed but our shifted class status itched me like new skin healing over a wound. To enjoy the pleasures of money felt impossible, but to take this new security for granted was morally abhorrent, and I saw no easy place to land between these two feelings and so I bounced uncomfortably from one to the other.
The bus takes me away from the Borghese Gardens. I try to continue reading the interminable biography of Bernini. In truth, I like combing through it paragraph by opaque paragraph. Academic philosophy had trained me to read slowly and badly and with the belief that what I was really doing was grinding out a path to enlightenment, a belief that thrilled me. The whole project of philosophy was to get nowhere. If, by chance, a philosopher did discover the answer to a question—say, how to solve for the hypotenuse of any triangle—it was no longer philosophy. Facts got kicked out to the other disciplines. Philosophy, by its very nature, required uncertainty. It was, wrote Maria Popova, “the art of remaining in doubt.”
To seek the truth required one to endure dissonance, and the ability to sit with this discomfort was what separated the philosopher from other people, or so we’re taught in graduate school. I bought into this image of the philosopher and his work and willed it to bleed into the rest of my thinking. I like the thought that what I seek will be discovered if only I can withstand what others cannot, that pain has purpose, that I’m not lost, but just on the harder path.
At a restaurant near my hotel, I eat cacio e pepe because it is Rome and obligatory to eat cacio e pepe. I eat it alone and think, I am here, here I am, still me. I bring the biography of Bernini and I try to read, but the words blur on the page. I put it down as someone comes to fill my water glass. The waiter asks me what I’m reading and I show the cover and he coos approval.
“God’s favorite,” he says. “Very important to Rome, to Catholics.”
He’s impressed I’m not taking pictures of the cacio e pepe because American tourists, he says, come to the restaurant and take so many pictures of the cacio e pepe that they eat it cold and complain. I do not say the truth: my phone is dead. I want to text my mom and I want to take a picture of my cacio e pepe. Instead, I read my book. The waiter nods approvingly. I don’t get far. In my head, I keep repeating Bertrand Russell’s line, “Rome had no new ideas,” by which he meant that philosophy in the Roman period was not free, but was molded to fit an ideology, namely Christianity. Art followed. The famous works on view here are largely the result of papal commissions. The Galleria Borghese was the collection of a great patron of the arts, Cardinal Scipione Borghese. Art was for God and beauty was from God and God was all over Rome and Rome had no new ideas and neither did I. But then a new idea comes.
When the waiter returns, I ask if these American tourists ever left things behind. He returns with a cardboard box. I fish around until I find what I need.
“With our compliments,” the waiter says. An adapter. I plug in, I am resourceful, I have solved a problem without making a reading list first. My phone charges, lights up, alive. I text my mom. I send her a quick pic of the end of my pasta.
I leave the restaurant after the sun has set. Rome is dark. I’m tired and need the shortest route to my hotel so I cut down a dim alley. The road turns rough. I trip along the way. I keep my head down, eyes squinting at my path, and so I don’t see the men first but hear them. They’re laughing. I move to one side of the alley and they move to the same side. I step the other way and so do they. There are four of them. I hear one speaking to me, but I don’t know what he is saying.
Their interest in me, their sound, turns me stony. I open my mouth and out comes not words, but strained guttural notes.
One man jogs past to stand behind me. Another puts his hand on my shoulder and backs me up, toward the wall, toward his friend. His friend is tall. They want to take my picture standing next to him. I’m short, a dwarf, which is funny, hysterical. I’m not real. Just a strange thing in the alley. The flash of their camera. I freeze. Then I’m back in the dark.
When I was a teenager, a man once watched me going up some stairs and he said, “Grace eludes you.” I seemed to be struggling, which struck him, I suppose, as ugly.
Does this man remember what he said to me? Does he return to the memory each time he sees stairs?
I still—two decades after this man watched me walk up the stairs—step aside to tie my shoe to allow people to go ahead of me. I fake phone calls so that others will walk up without me. I pretend to wait for someone who isn’t coming. I bide my time, clinging to my weak ruse of self-protection, until no one is looking. I do not climb stairs until I can do so unobserved. I’ve never stopped preparing for the next person who will see me walk and deny me grace.
The way words stay, the way sentences stay, the way memories invade my present, the way a stranger looks at me and speaks: shards that become a mirror.
In Rome, men block my path. They are drunk. The tall one wants to leave, done with this picture project. Another man drops his phone. His friends laugh at his clumsiness. One taps the other’s chest and just like that they’re distracted by a new plan, a diverting interest, and they leave me without further incident and carry on with their night, never to think of this moment again.
Midnight in Rome, dinnertime in Brooklyn. My family appears within my phone’s frame with their bowls of half-eaten spaghetti. Wolfgang’s mouth is red at the corners, sauce on his bare chest; his little face blurs, turns to blocks, stops, then refocuses itself on the screen. My husband tells me about his day and what he’ll do the next and what Wolfgang had done that day and their voices are sweet and clear and I am grateful and numb.
“How’s Milan?” Andrew asks.
“I’m in Rome, actually,” I say.
“Yeah. I had to see the Berninis.”
“Sure,” he says. “Makes sense.”
I don’t tell him about the men on the street. I’ve learned not to share these experiences, especially with able-bodied people who can be quick to tell me how I should feel, that I should just ignore it or learn to laugh it off or that I’m being too sensitive and it’s not a big deal or it is a big deal, a huge deal, and I should be angrier, much angrier, why aren’t you angrier? Often these statements are made with good intentions, meant to embolden me or shuttle me through the encounter, but they always have the opposite effect, leaving me feeling chastened and misunderstood. It is a deft act of erasure to be told how to process a situation by a person who would never experience it.
This is not why I withhold the scene in the alley from Andrew, whose capacity for empathy is wide and manifests mostly in the form of careful listening. He does not pretend to know what he cannot know and he never tells me who to be or how to feel.
I don’t tell Andrew about the incident because I don’t want him to feel I need help he can’t give me. I don’t want him to worry or be afraid. But more than this, I don’t want my hurt to spill onto him, staining him. I want to protect him from that part of me, and Wolfgang, too, and so I keep it to myself, but in doing so keep my distance, failing to share my life with them. Wolfgang starts to talk, but there’s a mechanical screeching coming from the screen. I turn down the volume on my phone. They are both very far away.
I find Ovid online and reread Proserpine’s story. I’d forgotten Cyane, the naiad, who rises from the river to beg Pluto not to take Proserpine. He ignores her, and she feels so much sorrow, watching them descend into the mouth of hell, that her body disintegrates.
In silence carried in her heart a wound beyond consoling…. You might have seen her limbs soften, her bones begin to bend, her nails losing their hardness…. Shoulders, back, and breast dissolved, disappeared; and, in place of warm and living blood, water flows.
I recognize in Cyane’s fate an appealing and familiar way to solve a problem. I draw a bath and believe, too, that all my sorrows will be resolved by disembodiment. My legs and hips throb. I slip, stiff as marble, into the hot water. I welcome the release, the unmingling of mind from body.
In the department store, my father had approached the red-haired woman and he’d held her by the arm, his fingers pressing gently into her skin. We’d followed her from room to room, past stacks of shoe boxes, racks of clothing. My father pretended to look at a blender. The red-haired woman showed no interest in buying anything. She’d looked at him, eyes bright, smiling. He touched her elbow.
My father might not remember this moment, this flirtation with the red-haired woman. She was not the woman he eventually left my mother for or even one of the women he cheated on her with. This was just some brief encounter on a Tuesday or Wednesday, a lazy afternoon in Kansas, in summer. We’d gone to that department store on an errand for my mother. I don’t remember what she’d needed, a garden hose or a gallon of paint, some ordinary object she’d use in her constant effort to keep up our home.
My mother asked of everything: What work needed doing?
My father was after grander experiences. He craved excitement, surprise. He wanted the beauty that sharpened the edges of heightened feeling. None of this was easy to access at a department store, grocery store, pharmacy, doctor’s office. He failed to find value in life’s bland tasks and resented the fact that such work was expected of him.
It has been ten years since I’ve seen my father. Three months before this night in Rome, I received a letter from him. He was getting sober, it read, and he had entered a seminary that gave him the chance to sit in solitary reflection. He’d mostly been thinking about happiness, a concept that remained elusive to him. I was happy once, he wrote, or maybe I am happy now. I don’t know. He found himself, more and more, retreating to scenes from our shared past: us in our truck, kicking up dust on the backcountry roads that led to our farm, him behind the wheel, a child-me next to him in the passenger seat. It was there, in the memory of the quotidian drive home, that he located a feeling like happiness. Sometimes our dog Angus, that wonderfully iridescent black Lab mutt, is with us, my father wrote, sitting in the bed of the old, beat-up Ford 350 we used for carrying hay and pulling our horses. We roll the windows down and let in the dirt from the road until we choke.
My happiest memory came when Wolfgang was four months old. On the day of his birth, I felt pain, anxiety, exhaustion, terror. Joy was noticeably absent. I waited for it in the weeks that followed but a depression came in its place. I hoped it might at least blunt the dread that kept me awake all night, listening for sounds of my son in his crib, but instead my fear was made brighter by it, just as stars shine against the black sky and by contrast are brightened.
Months passed and then, one day, postpartum darkness gave way to a silvery dusk and, on one of these lighter mornings, I lifted Wolfgang from his crib and cradled him in my arms and made a silly face and he laughed—he really laughed. He looked right at me and emitted this high-pitched screechy music, this pure baby glee, and I heard the sound of it and I felt it, too; it spread throughout my chest, bringing with it a joy I’d never known before, a pure distillation of feeling that I can only describe as being shot through by some sacred beam. Now illuminated: this laughter, this piercing shriek and the one-toothed smile that propelled it out of him and into me, was the most beauty I’d ever experienced, and I was happy, but then he stopped laughing and cried to be nursed and so I nursed him and then I changed his diaper and, later, I laundered his soiled sheets and I dressed him and took him to the bodega and to the pharmacy and the playground and eventually I made lunch and dinner and, throughout all this, I was acutely aware of how quickly the experience of beauty dissipates and is replaced by boredom and the dullness of obligation.
My father’s letter to me was an attempt to explain why he could not keep hold of the happiness he felt when we were together decades ago. He was cursed, he wrote, and believed I’d inherited this curse. He saw us as having a dual nature: one side shaped by prejudice, impoverishment, and self-delusion; the other side capable of creation, joy, song, sublimity. This duality made us sensitive and uncompromising, he explained. I was happy and incredibly miserable at the same time. We saw our authentic selves residing only in the romanticized abstract realms of art, creation, beauty—an interior space of thought and private feeling. We were petulant and impatient, claiming to experience outsized agony, when expected to endure less romantic realities. We are people, he wrote, who see the world differently, who feel oppressed by the dreadful normalcy of life, who long for something more, something more beautiful.
My father worked a government job that involved a lot of paperwork and no art. It put him face-to-face daily with Dreadful Normalcy itself. The fact that we needed money and that he was beholden to this work offended his deepest sensibilities. Where do you go, he asked in his letter, to find escape from a reality that is oppressive to the soul?
Now, in a bathtub in Rome, after the long day at the Galleria, I think of my father’s letter. I see my pursuit of Joel as a way out of reality. Pain oppressed me, held me at a remove, filtered my every experience through the lens of itself, turned a vacation into an endurance activity, made it impossible for me to access what I really longed for, which was to be fully present in nearness to beauty.
Where do you go to escape reality? I went to alcohol and the random affair, my father wrote in his letter. It was an admission that underplayed the pain those escapes cost him and me and my mother and others, but it also obscured the truer answer to his question. He escaped most deeply into art, imagination. He turned tasks, all our banal outings, into adventures. He made up games for us to play in the aisles of grocery stores. He flirted with strangers, constructed grand romantic relationships from a few side-glances. Through his eyes the mundane became mythical. And I loved it.
I idolized my father and mistook his reluctance to face life’s hard facts as a kind of nobility. But also, he was just more fun, certainly more fun than my chore-oriented mother. It was fun to run errands with my father, who would abandon the errand altogether if its realities started to infringe too much on the fantasy he’d needed it to be. And I am the same. Me and my father, looking to escape. Me and Cyane, dissolving in water, free from the need for further complex thought or action. I meet reality by trying to either transcend it or sit below its surface. I want the fix, but not the work. I want the world, but not its facts. I do not know how to reconcile opposing desires, to hold them in my mind at the same time. The attempt brings only weakness and I feel myself succumbing to the dismissal of the dissonant mind.
The curse, he explained, our shared curse, was this: we could not gracefully integrate our authentic selves with the stark facts of reality, and the inability to resolve this tension causes us to suffer and to make other people suffer. It is not an oversimplification, my father wrote, to say that this tension between the “romanticized” and “real” world is the story of our lives.
At the end of his letter, with a sincerity I could feel across the cold distance of prose on a page, he asked me, How can I live an authentic life in the present?
My father could not do this and feared I could not either, and I know he is right, we are the same, we share the curse, but I have one tool he didn’t have: his example. His choices, and where they led him. I know my father’s fate.
Proserpine is rescued in part. While in the Underworld, Proserpine ate pomegranate seeds, which means she has to stay with Pluto for part of the year and can return above for the other part of the year. The myth gives an explanation for the seasons. Winter is when she is below, and the earth mourns her absence by turning cold and hard; when she returns, the world warms. Proserpine is glad when she hears of this split.
Straightaway her heart and features are transformed / That face which even Pluto must have found / Unhappy beams with joy, as when the sun / long lost and hidden in the clouds and rain / Rides forth in triumph from the clouds again.
She wants to live half in darkness, half in light.
It will be years before I understand the ending and when I do, I’ll see something more in the Bernini, too. It’s not Bernini’s technical skill that makes his sculpture beautiful. It’s not its proportionality. It’s that he keeps its tension apparent. Bernini leaves the scene uneasy, its dueling desires visible.
Proserpine, by the end of the story, is transformed. She belongs to two worlds, rules two empires: queen in hell, as well as above. Proserpine, from proserpere: to emerge, to slowly go forward. Bernini’s fingers press upon her soft skin, building disquiet below the marble’s surface, leaving there for you to see: a woman divided, a woman changing, yielding beneath the wrath of love.