Authors: Pat Conroy
Then I ran down slippery, half-lit streets, going deeper and deeper into the unknown Venice, wishing I could weep, at last, for poor lost Shyla. I thought the tears would come easily behind a mask, but I was wrong again. After her death, I had no time to cry for Shyla and I covered my grief with the excuse that Leah needed my strength far more than any breakdown. So I made an appointment for myself at Carnevale and as I wandered farther into Venice covered with chasubles of snow, I wanted to make time for all the
tears I carried in me. None came, not a one, because the spirit of the city lifted me along with the fog that rose up along the waterways as ice began to erase the current in the smaller canals.
Another party of ten to twenty people sped past on a narrow and treacherous path and a woman reached out and grabbed my hand. I followed her as fireworks exploded high above the Grand Canal and a siren went off deep in the unsleeping city. She led me up stairs to an apartment where we slow-danced to a Frank Sinatra album of love songs at a party so crowded that we simply swayed against the other bodies in the smoke-filled room.
The woman was masked but my imagination filled in every detail of her features. In their masks, all the women turned into famous beauties and all the men dazzled with their handsomeness and the woman I danced with began to ask me questions in Italian. I could not speak a word of Italian without letting the entire country in on the fact that I was an American.
“Ah!” the woman said in her rich, musical voice. “I was hoping you were Chinese.”
“Then I am Chinese,” I said in Italian.
“I am a contessa,” she said proudly. “I can trace my family’s origins all the way back to the twelfth doge.”
“This is true?” I asked.
“On this night, everything is true,” she said. “All women are contessas at Carnevale.”
My Italian had come to its farthest border and I asked in English, “Does the mask make it easy to lie?”
“The mask makes it necessary to lie.”
“Then you are not a contessa,” I said.
“I am a contessa on the same night every year. And I expect the whole world to pay me the homage I am due.”
I stepped back and bowed deeply. “My adored contessa.”
“My servant,” she said, curtsied, then disappeared into the crowd.
Back outside, I walked westward through the deepening snow and my feet began to freeze in my silly costume shoes. Pretty women hidden behind lacquered masks laughed and ran away at my approach. The Venetian alleyways, claustrophobic and narrow, exaggerated
my height and my shadow thrown across courtyards seemed vast and ecclesiastical. Near the baroque facade of the Church of the Gesuiti, a woman appeared in the snow, alone. She giggled when she saw me, half-frozen and ridiculous in my cheap costume, but she did not run away. We both laughed when we realized we were the only two people out in this obscure part of the city.
The masked woman, dressed virginally in white, took my hand as I tried to speak, but she put a silencing finger to my lips. Returning her touch, I traced her full bottom lip with my finger until she bit it roughly. She then took my hand and hurried me through passages and beneath arches until we came to a part of the city where I had never walked.
When we entered an alleyway too narrow for two people to walk side by side, she turned and wrapped a scarf around my eyes, laughing as she made sure the blindfold covered my mask completely. Convinced I could see nothing, she led me down the alley, leading me like an aerialist beckoning on the high wire. Far off in the city, I could hear the voices of the celebrants sounding distant and abstracted.
I followed her blindly and trusted her as she led me through a doorway and up four flights of narrow stairs. We entered a room and she removed the scarf from my eyes; the room was so dark that I could see nothing clearly in the perfect warm darkness and heard only the slapping of water against the sides of unseen boats tied up outside.
Then I felt her naked against me and her mouth found my mouth and her tongue hunted for my tongue and drove it back deep against my throat. Her mouth tasted like wine and seawater, like womanhood distilled. I licked her throat and breasts as she moved me toward a bed, laid me down on freshly laundered cotton sheets, then unbuttoned each button of my costume. She licked my chest in her purring descent down my body. When her mouth reached my penis, she took it down her throat and back up in a swift purling motion like a fire-eater and pushed the limits of both burlesque and desire. The scrimmage of her tongue took me to the high ledges of orgasm, then she released me suddenly and rolled me over her. We kissed again and I tasted myself and the taste of her mouth was a
different flavor as I entered her. I knew in that moment that she would choose to remain anonymous. There would be no ceremony of unmasking. As I moved inside her and rode her with abandon I surrendered myself to the night, a night when sex bloomed like a wildflower in a secret alcove of the imagination, when lust roared and bawled and allowed itself to be primal, animal, unnamable as it was in the caves and forests and the light of fires when fire was not yet a word and the body still was a being without a name.
Now as the gondola moved through the lights playing in the Grand Canal, I tried to remember her long, unseen limbs, to conjure her every movement in the deciduous empire of touch, every pressure of her breasts and response of her legs and heels, all shivers and sighs in the bright résumé of her passion. She had spoken no words to me nor I to her, and the mere fact of our wordlessness had excited me further.
When I came, my scream met her scream and our tongues bruised against the sound. Then, exhausted and sweating, we fell off each other and again we heard the splash of water, of boats drumming against their moorings and straining against ropes and tides accompanied by our own heavy panting as our lovemaking cooled slowly. Her hair fell against my chest as we lay together in the blackened room.
Ledare touched me on the cheek, her fingers wet from letting them drift in the currents. “A penny for your thoughts.”
“I was thinking about the place of existentialism in modern literature,” I said.
“Liar,” she said, flicking her fingers and spraying me playfully with canal water. “Whatever it was, I could tell it was nice.”
“Life-changing,” I said.
“They built this city so you’d never want to leave it, didn’t they, Jack?” Ledare said.
“No,” I said. “I think they are nicer than that. They built it so you’d always have something to dream about.”
“It breaks my heart how pretty it all is,” she said.
“Venice travels well,” I said. “She won’t leave you.”
In the room, I’d heard footsteps moving through the snow, light and muffled. The woman left the bed quickly, but again she put a
finger to my lips. She returned with my costume, my soaked shoes, which she must have had warmed on some kind of heater. When I’d dressed she led me to the doorway and ran my hands over her unseen face like a blind man reading his favorite poem in braille. Then she put on her mask, then mine, and once more blindfolded me with a scarf and led me down the stairway and into the snow.
I followed her through the bitterly cold night toward the noise and the crowds and the beginning of Lent. I attempted to talk to her in my Berlitz Italian, begged her for her name, explained that I wanted to see her again, to take her to dinner.
She laughed when I spoke and her laughter revealed that she knew her mystery and her silence were the essential erotica of our time together.
We crossed a bridge and her hand left mine suddenly as I was asking her if Venice was her hometown. I tried to call out to her but realized there was no name to call. Removing the scarf from around my mask, I found myself disoriented at an intersection of four Venetian alleys. I listened for sounds of running or flight, but her escape was silent. I spun in a circle but only saw other masked figures like myself coming over bridges, some carrying bottles of wine, some candles or flashlights. The flashlights crisscrossed through the snowy air. Voices rose everywhere, but it was her silence I longed for.
I tried to retrace my steps, but this was Venice and the woman had given me all the time she was willing to give.
Before I left the city, I wandered over it, especially in that obscure neighborhood by the Gesuiti where I guessed my secret lover had taken me. I wanted to thank and praise her and cry her name aloud. I had not made love to a woman since Shyla’s death. My body had been shut down until that night of snow in Venice and the woman of the mask, the woman who understood the mystery of remaining unnamed, the woman who did not utter a single word.
Much later, I suspected that the woman might have been Shyla herself, telling me it was time to get on with my life and to forget about her. Dressing up and playing make-believe were two of the things that Shyla loved best.
When Ledare and I arrived at the Gritti Palace, I paid Gino with a fifty-thousand-lire note. Gino kissed Ledare’s hand and offered to
take her on a tour of the smaller canals for free the next day. Then we went up to dress for dinner.
ike was already seated when we walked into the Taverna La Fenice later that evening.
“Have a seat. You look beautiful, Ledare. You could get arrested in that dress,” Mike said. “Nice place here, Jack. No pizza joint for the three mouseketeers, huh?”
“It’s an old favorite of mine,” I said. “I thought you two would like it.”
When the waiter came to take our order, I was explaining the menu.
“The pastas are terrific here. The
bigoli con granzeola
is made with a crab sauce. They don’t taste much like our blue crabs, but they taste great anyway. The veal dishes are all good. If you like liver, Venice is the place.”
“Just tell the guy I’ll have a hamburger and a green salad with Roquefort cheese dressing,” Mike said.
“They don’t have hamburgers here. And they don’t have Roquefort cheese dressing in Italy.”
“No hamburgers. It’s a restaurant, isn’t it? The fucking Four Seasons in New York serves hamburgers.”
“I’d trust Jack on this one,” Ledare said. “He covers this territory.”
“I don’t believe the Roquefort cheese dressing either,” Mike added. “Where do they make Roquefort cheese? Answer me that one?”
“In France,” Ledare said.
“Right. France. Next fucking country, yes? Bet it’s not three hundred miles from here. I don’t eat salad without Roquefort.”
“You will tonight,” I said.
“Italy’s still the Third World, man. You’d think they’d get the picture and sign up for the twentieth century. Get me some veggies and some of that thin veal. What’s that real skinny veal called? Starts with an
“You order for me, Jack,” Ledare said.
I smiled and said, “Smart girl,” and proceeded to order them a Venetian feast that began with carpaccio and was followed by a risotto brimming with fresh green spears of asparagus. We finished with the leg of lamb, eggplant, and spinach and, too sated for dessert, we ordered espresso and a glass of grappa.
Mike’s salad arrived, but he did not touch it when he found it was dressed with olive oil. So I instructed the waiter, in Italian, to bring us some ingredients from the kitchen. When they arrived he mixed some yogurt and mayonnaise in a bowl, then added Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco before he crumbled a wedge of Gorgonzola into the mixture. The waiter tossed a fresh salad with the newly made dressing and could not hide his contempt for the result.
“Great stuff,” Mike said happily as he tasted it. “I told you they had Roquefort cheese stashed around here somewhere.”
It was only a few moments later that Mike brought up the subject he was in Venice to pursue. “Let’s talk a minute about the project. What do you two think? The greatest change in the South since World War II?”
After thinking about it a moment, Ledare said, “The invention of instant grits. No, that’s not it. That you can buy a taco, a
, in almost any small town in the South.”
Mike frowned and said, “You’re not being serious. How about you, Jack?”
“I’m not going to work on your project and I personally don’t care what the biggest or the smallest change has been in the South.”
“This is big money, Jack. More money than you’ve ever made. I’ve done some checking. This is a personal favor from me to you. I had to do some fast talking to get you approved. Ledare’s got a couple of credits, a little name recognition. Your Julia Child imitation doesn’t bring shit to the project.”
“I’m out of it, Mike.”
“Will you work as a consultant?”
“Because you’ll want us to write about Shyla and I’m not going to do that.”
“We won’t have to say she jumped off the bridge. Or we can just do that off-screen.”
“Count me out. You’re also going to want to write about Jordan and the sixties.”
“No. Wait a sec,” Mike said, holding his hand in the air. “You’re getting ahead of the game. See, I want it in a context. Don’t you see? It’s not just about us. It’s about this century. My grandfather coming to Waterford not speaking but ten words of English. He meets your grandfather, Jack. It changes both their lives forever. We’re here at this table in Venice right now because of a pogrom that took place in Russia in 1921. Isn’t that true?”
“Yes,” I agreed, “that’s true.”
“Look, that past defined us, like it or not. And then we lived through some shit. You asked about Jordan. Hell yeah, we deal with Jordan. Who changed us more than Jordan Elliott? Do you know where he is, Jack?”
“Rumor has it he died. We all went to his memorial service.”
“Rumor has it that he’s alive, that you know where he is. Rumor has it that he’s in Italy.”
“If he is, he’s never gotten in touch with me,” I said.
“If he had, would you tell me?” Mike asked.
“No, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“I don’t agree with what the son of a bitch did in the war, but God damn, it’s great drama. Especially if we learn how he got away.”
“You could make that part up, couldn’t you?” Ledare asked Mike. “Maybe Jack’s right. Maybe he died while trying to escape or hide.”