Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Jump from the Third Floor

I am troubled. Walking to the coffee shop, I unconsciously click my teeth together as I pass over each sidewalk crack. I stop short and remember my great-grandmother, then look at my reflection in the shop’s plate-glass window. Do I look disconnected? Wild eyed? Show a propensity for jumping out of windows?

My family talked often about Great-grandmother Nan, a woman Grandmother described as tiny and spirited, a whirling dervish on their many acres hosting cows, sheep, and the catfish pond. Nan bounced out of bed to milk the cows before dawn, always starting with Hessie, her favorite, then moving on to the other nine. Her small, strong hands pushed milk into buckets so fast my grandmother joked it “’purt near made butter—like she was churning it right there!” But the story Grandmother relayed the most, at our request, was the story of Nan’s dramatic death.

Yesterday, a month after turning 35, I broke down in violent, hysterical sobs in my car for no reason—two days in a row now. At midnight, unable to sleep, I dug from my closet my small shoe box of Nan’s possessions, each given to me over several Christmases by Grandmother. A starched doily, a dull flowered teacup, and a stained handkerchief stared back at me. Their fragility echoed that of Nan and the picture I had in my head, her small body twisted in wrong angles on the front lawn moments after, according to Grandmother, she ran screaming through the house and threw herself through a third-story window in the large farmhouse.

Grandmother stubbornly calls Nan’s trouble epilepsy, though her stories make it clear it was much more. Chest tight, staring for too many moments at the change in my hand courtesy of the curious barista, I wonder how much blood matters.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Ride from Saint-Emilion

Careful planner that I am, I knew I had arrived in the lovely wine village of Saint-Emilion with exactly two late-day options for taking the tram back to Libourne and my mod hotel in the Bordeaux region. Both gave me hours to spend walking the steep streets, shopping for wine and related goodies, venturing to the tiny town’s edges to be amongst the grapes, and most definitely stopping at one of the five restaurants I had identified would be ideal for lunch.

It was my first time in France, and on this, Day Three, I was convinced everything I had read about the French populace was wrong. They were extremely friendly: I had probably been in two dozen shops by this time, always on the hunt for the perfect gift for the ten or so people on my list, and each shopkeeper had greeted me warmly. They then spoke to me enthusiastically about candidate Barack Obama, who might (and of course would) make history and (in the eyes of the French, I’d come to find out) go a long way to redeeming us and establishing that our judgment is not, in fact, crap. They do not distain Americans but were befuddled at our re-election of Bush Jr.

Pondering my surprisingly warm feelings for the French, I meandered to the outskirts of town (eventually, all the outskirts, given how small the town is). No fellow pedestrians followed, preferring instead the town’s commercial area and thus missing discoveries like a single, dainty yellow flower growing out of the top of a stone wall, or the sad sight of hedgehog roadkill.

My obligatory exploration of parts unknown complete, I walked back toward town and approached the attractive outdoor seating of a café when a nearby door opened, and a man in suit minus his jacket stepped out and down. I noticed him because he was carefully holding a thick white restaurant plate with steaming fries and steak smothered in sauce, while his other hand grasped heavy silverware and a starchy bright-white cloth napkin. It was as if a waiter got lost on his way to a table, but no, the man took five steps down the sidewalk, then stepped through a glass door into retail space I assumed was his office—insurance sales, possibly. Fascinated now, and wondering if I could do this at home in my New York neighborhood, I watched the man head back to the middle of the office space and sit down at a desk, then drape the napkin across his lap and begin to enjoy his meal.

Half of me is mesmerized that such a thing could happen, would happen—That you’d just walk out with fine china! That the owner and staff would let you! That this is their version of take-out!—and the other half of me is wistful. I’m quite sure I lack the gene which allows me to trust others: I have no faith people will do the right thing or want to. I don’t believe, despite evidence to the contrary, people choose you and your needs over that of their own. This seems to me a fatal flaw, or at the very least, The Reason I’m Not Yet Married. Or maybe it’s basic kindness I lack, something my sister, in our younger days, would certainly attest to and provide to interested parties a list of examples demonstrating my cold and sometimes wicked tendencies. Of the many deficiencies my soul has, this is the one which creates the deepest wall between me and others. We can share a love of Bordeaux wines, or the Loire Valley’s semi-dry goat cheese, or the funny photo at the cloisters here in quaint Saint-Emilion of fully-robed bishops on snow skis, but that won’t diminish the gulf I feel. I wonder if you feel it?

I am still pondering those gulfs when I notice the time and the approaching dusk. Tossing a few euros on the café table, where I knocked back an espresso during the pondering, I begin to pick my way across the cobblestones and past the church to the tram stop. A few minutes of standing around waiting for the tickettaker turns into fifteen, and finally, someone arrives at the booth. Another tourist, a Frenchman wearing, of all things, an ascot, walks over to discuss the tram situation. (Or that’s my assumption, since my French is quite—quite—limited.) When they finish, the tickettaker (who also happens to be the tram driver) begins to close up the booth, and a panicked feeling jumps into bed with me. The man in the ascot seems friendly, so I cross my fingers, hope he speaks English or can at least muddle through my terrible French, and ask him for the skinny.

The gist of his alarming message is that the onset of dusk somehow took the tram operator by surprise, and they’ll not be running any more trams today. This leaves me just over five miles from my backpack, laptop, and other possessions in my hotel room in a town too small for taxis or rental car companies. My mind is slapped down and quite worthless, but after a moment, I recover and whiz (well, lope) through possible solutions.

The kind man in the ascot sees I am flummoxed and makes a suggestion which turns out to be scary and perfect. While he and his wife are not going to Libourne, he guesses the tram driver, a short man approaching what Americans call elderly—is, and this turns out to be true. Ascot arranges for the man to pick me up in ten minutes at the traffic circle just a few hundred feet to the north and deliver me to my riverside hotel in Libourne. The arrangement is made without me meeting the driver or exchanging words. Ascot is happy with his good deed and departs with his silent wife, and I begin to march, with a walk and a wait providing time for my nervousness to reach its peak.

I do not hitchhike. Of course I don’t. The types of risks I take don’t involve being in an enclosed space with a stranger, save the occasional elevator ride. As I walk, I distract myself by again admiring the bombed-out remains of what I think was an abbey, and then with a pep talk about how very unlikely it is that something, large or small, will go wrong on this short ride to my hotel. (My hotel! He’ll know where I’m staying! And that I’m alone!)

I find a spot on the wall where the driver (What’s his name? Did he even tell me?) can safely pull over to pick me up. I wait. Dark is coming. I wait. Car lights turn on. Dark comes. I’m convinced the driver either forgot or has changed his mind, possibly viewing a small white American woman as a physical or existential threat. I’m working out Plan C when a small car slows down and pulls up. Relieved and yet not, I get in.

“Bon soir,” in my best French (which is probably the wrong greeting).

He returns my greeting, his voice soft but friendly. I tell him, in mostly English, where I am going. Blank stare. Oh brother. I explore a little more and confirm he speaks no English. I muster all my French-speaking skills—it’s a matter of life and death (or at least a ride to my destination or lots of walking). I try a few topics, but with my limited vocabulary, my lines of conversation don’t have far to go to die. Finally, a Sinatra song comes on the radio, and he points to the console.

“Sinatra?” he says cautiously.

“Yes! Sinatra!” I’m excited—common ground is struck. We run through song names for a few minutes, then I ask if he knows Obama.

“Obama!” he says with a smile, giving the steering wheel a light and happy thump. Yup, we’re practically twins. He chatters away, forgetting I can understand one word in ten he says.

In line with what I’ve heard the past few days, the French are optimistic about Americans as humans once again and hopeful we will elect this Obama person. (By the time I leave in another week, I will have become convinced electing this man will do more for US-world relations than dropping gold bullion from Predator drones.)

My new friend and I continue to talk, trying to find more interests we share. Finally, we enter Libourne, and I direct him as best I can to my hotel. Thankfully, the town is smallish and has a river as a landmark. While the plan I formulated on my walk to the traffic circle was to have him drop me a few blocks away, I have by now changed my mind. As we approach the bridge I recognize as the one a less than a half block from my hotel, I tell him he can turn here and pull over, fearing nothing at this point but continuing to subject this man to my subpar French. My disembarkment from his little car is a warm round of au revoirs, and he watches with a serious look to ensure I am safely greeted by the hotel desk staff inside the front door.

Having ordering a drink from room service straightaway, I unpack and fiddle with their strange cable system while waiting for my glass of Bordeaux. Instead of letting me accept the tray from him at the door, the young man will hear nothing of it, bringing my wine and the additional, unexpected treats of olives and nuts over to the desk and explaining the treats he is presenting. He is sweet and earnest, but now I need him to leave so I can decompress. Grabbing my wine, I settle back on the bed and flip channels, trying to ignore the emotional exhaustion caused by entrusting my life to two strangers. Did the fact this experience drained me like an empty tub make me healthily cautious? I feared it was another answer, making me a cold, suspicious person unable, without extreme effort, to relate to others.

I read once evolution and our survival-of-the-fittest instincts cause humans to assume the worst; then when it doesn’t happen, we’re at least still alive. (Versus: Nope, that’s probably not a lion making that tall grass rustle. Oh…oops.) I keep my hitchhiking experience in mind when I feel distrust creep into my brain upon encountering a new person. Surely there are fewer lions in the tall grass than kind, elderly lovers of Sinatra and Obama, happy to give a stranger a ride when dusk approaches early.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Running Away: Lessons from a Little Boy on a Piazza

It seems unlikely I’d see as sudden and aggressive a downpour, but it comes as my espresso does, changing every conversation in Como’s large umbrellaed restaurant courtyard. Each of us surely appreciated even more our choice to dine here, the piazza’s only covered terrace, though the rain exits almost as quickly as it entered. I’m watching a trio of young Italian boys poke each other and laugh, their relaxed parents a table away and completely unconcerned about their children’s doings.

A sudden reach across plates catches the table cloth, bringing down a glass to shatter our relaxed chatter. The eyes of the other boys focus on one, whose face now displays a child’s universal look of fear, chagrin, and a desire to run fast away. His face struck me as horribly familiar: the expression my husband wore when he heard my doctor dully proclaim I had a brain tumor.

I didn’t blame him for his reaction—I had the very same one. Our already fragile marriage would not survive the 100% certainty that I was not going to be a peach of a patient. A kind person who loved me despite my unlovableness, Jack would push his fear down and try to soothe me—me, someone incapable of accepting comforting words or gestures. He was sunk before the game began.

So instead of freezing in fear, like the boy who broke the glass, I gave in to the other instant reaction and fled. Fled to Italy, then France, then the south of Spain, and now back to Italy. Soaked my discomfort in bottles of homemade limoncello given to me by nice Italian grandfatherly types at the many restaurants I visited alone and quiet, drowned unhappiness in gallons of champagne consumed in bars and bistros and brasseries in Cannes and Alsace and Paris. Ignored calls from my doctor, asking, his voice holding a rough edge, when exactly I’d be returning for treatment.

And I fled the affectionate hand squeezes, the soft knee grasps, and the loving gazes I knew Jack would inflict upon me once he had time to hurdle his fear—fear for me, for our marriage, and for himself. Wasn’t it a gift to all, then, that I was here in Europe drinking myself away every night? Jack knows, in his heart, that he cannot save me, knows I may not want to save myself this time.

He met me three days after I was given the all-clear on my first brain tumor and was acting just that way: grabbing every opportunity, every man’s arm, every glass of champagne off passing trays…was squeezing the haphazard out of each moment and not really caring where I landed since I now knew I would land instead of disappear.

The boy who broke the glass felt something. And right now, I feel nothing. Last time, reckless—this time, careless. And somehow, there’s a difference.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Mother's Christmas Tree

The heat kicked on, and the hot air sent by nearby vents began to flutter the long needles on my mother’s Christmas tree. Oh, it was my father’s too, technically, but it was my mother who carefully placed homemade childhood ornaments, heavy beaded garlands, crystal icicles, and other accoutrements on each branch until it dripped elegantly. It was a work of art, that tree, every year a labor of love and pride. My father invited everyone in to see it, and the year I had my brain tumor and couldn’t travel to my childhood home for the first time in almost 20 years, it was the second thing he said to me during our Christmas morning phone call: “I’ll mail some pictures of your mother’s tree—another tall one,” pride mixing with worry in his gruff voice. I envisioned his dark fuzzy caterpillar eyebrows bunching together, like when I swung and (often) missed a softball in middle school.

My parents live in a small town—I’d say it was quaint, like a small town should be, but it’s more accurately labeled depressing—and calling upon one’s friends and acquaintances during the holiday season is still a treasured ritual. You show up with homemade baked goods (your specialty, if you have one). You sit for a pregnant moment if they’re elderly, or stand around the dinner table, scarf still tucked in to your coat, if they’re not, so you can get on to the next errand during this busy time. It’s the town where I grew up and where they still live, so despite its small size, there are many stops to make. 

During those stops, you see a lot of Christmas trees. According to my father, they shouldn’t even see the light of day, so violently do they pale in comparison to the museum-quality creation my mother makes each December. “It should be in one of those chateau castle things you like,” he tells me each year. He admires my mother’s skill in this and so many things. Were my husband to gloat about my talents (not with holiday decorations, sadly) as my father does about those of my mother, I’d be in a constant state of blush.

Fine snow swirled off the ancient sedan in front of me, tiny glittery diamonds flowing down its trunk and onto the road in front of me, forming a smooth, thin river. If I believed in magic, I’d say it was guided by a wizard’s wand, so deliberately and perfectly did it move, a fantasy sequence from a movie. My car seemed to lap it up, a thirsty cat at a bowl of milk—it disappeared under the Chevy’s nose as I drove down the two-lane highway (though most East Coasters would hardly call it that).

As I headed away from my parents’ town of New Farnham, population 228, toward the airport half a gas tank away, I glimpsed through windows many Christmas trees, no doubt deemed inferior by my father, who had visited most living rooms in town. Having visited this year’s Christmas tree after missing last year’s, the healing incision on my head keeping me from New Farnham for only the second time in life, I felt as though I had set things right, though that feeling might end when my latest test results are back tomorrow. All hail brain tumors for providing that one-day-at-a-time mindset the unafflicted so often lack.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Thoughts on a marriage inspired by rain and sun in Como

Is the rain-to-sun transition so different here? Or is it that I’m rarely outside, or possibly failing to notice light when the rain ends, quickly or slowly, and the sun comes out, quickly or slowly, bringing brightness to the very places which glow the most? Stone buildings, marble statues, fountains who’ve already had their fill of water: These things light up like magic, as though a misguided Hollywood special effects guru has decided something as awe-inspiring as Bordeaux’s unforgettable horse fountain somehow needs a boost.

But right now I’m not in Bordeaux, though it’s my next stop. I’m in Como, of beautiful lake fame, and I’m watching the crowd while eating a surprisingly good pizza with a nice red wine. My lunch perch overlooks the town’s cathedral, constructed from stones of pink, grey, beige, and colors unseen in other buildings. I look across the piazza toward the art fair in a sunken area with arches but am distracted by my phone vibrating, a trendy technical intrusion jarringly out of place in this eternal site which feels so solid and real.

It’s my husband, from his office in New York, no doubt, politely inquiring as to my whereabouts. He is too frightened to ask for a divorce but wants one, as do I, but I am punishing him for his infidelity and will make him complete the bad-guy circle. As I wait, I have decided to tour Western Europe, easing my pain with copious amounts of wine, fondue, chocolate, pizza, and sex with handsome Mediterranean men. Here in Como, my last stop on a two-week self-guided lake tour, it’s myself I’m punishing, taking long walks in sun and rain, thinking of the many times I pushed him toward other women. Emotionally unavailable most of the time, from the very beginning I did things like withhold physical and verbal affection, sex, and kindness in general. I skipped every one of his family’s gatherings, though truth be told I did him a favor as I would’ve been cold to them at best. It’s surprising he married me, and I’m still unsure why I married him.

I warned him about the famous moodiness and aloofness of writers, of how those of us drawn to writing (at least, myself and everyone I knew) are not warm and friendly but crave solitude and basically dislike people. I told him I would not be a mother—ever. (I think he thought I would change my mind…a silly and dangerous idea, and yet the most common, held by many about to marry.) In short, I was a bad bet for an outgoing, warm man like Jack, but I win no prizes for being right about that. No amount of chocolate or one-night stands fills that empty silver trophy cup.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Book outline COMPLETE.


So now, a break from that--call it a palate cleanser...a literary sorbet--and back to short stories and flash fiction.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Did I ever tell you the one about...

...how me and my boyfriend went to Yosemite, and I got sick right after the orange juice and missed our nice breakfast (fancy bacon!) at the Ahwahnee, but that wasn't the worst of it since he's more stubborn than anyone I know and thought he knew better than the ranger and decided to keep his new bag of peanuts in a zipper bag in the minivan we had rented ("I just bought them! I am *not* throwing them out. End of story.") resulting in loss of door (one) on said minivan due to A BEAR ATTACK?

Have I told you that one? No, I have not, because it has not yet been written. But it will be. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hey writers: Your craft and the drink

As I write champagne-tinged tripe (good lord, let there be as little tripe as possible), from the comfiest-looking chair in this hip lounge, I wonder how many writers will be watching The Rum Diary (quite sure I don't need to explain this one). How does the drink affect you? Do you swear off it when trying to write or pull the bottle when you get serious? 


Contest: 50-word story (my submission)

It’s the small things
by JJ Thorpe
(get it? irony! or maybe not…I always get that one wrong…)

The grey hipster fedora was wedged between the jersey barrier and a dented, shiny hubcap. Its perilous position sucking oily fumes, a strong breeze away from being blown into the fast lane and crushed, should’ve lessened its jauntiness but did not. I drove faster, encouraged by his small win.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Least you fear...

...that fear is why I have not posted (or writer's block, or lack of time, or a runny nose, or another reason): It's not. Good golly, no. (Though, as the author who penned the story about fear and writers notes, and I like his thought, a little fear is a good thing.) 

My lack of posting is having too many stories in their infancy. Baby stories, bits of stories, so so so many tiny beginnings of stories. And moving those stories to the flash fiction stage, or the short story stage, has been happening, but happening slowly (in part, because of a runny nose).

But soon! Soon I shall have a great, wonderful story. Involving seagulls, though that's not why it's great. Though it helps. Or I may submit that to a contest and try to win some money, in which case I cannot post it but will instead post something else. With at least one animal.

And please do read the article about fear and writing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I'm sick

Sick sick sick. Sleeping a lot. Not writing.

But pulling it together this weekend...nope, sniffy cold won't get the best of me.

Lots of stories in Phase One just itching to be finished, about Christmas trees, first-class air travel, coon clubs, and prom.

(What? What do you mean, "odd array"?)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ground Zero card table

She lugged the cooler full of water bottles, which had previously been stuffed under her bed and in her tiny pantry, into the hallway and down the elevator. On her back was a pack full of granola bars and anything else she thought a dirty, sweaty rescue worker might want after patiently stepping over and around rubble, looking for survivors. She went back for the folding card table she used for Scrabble nights with her neighbors, back when neighbors still did that sort of thing, grabbing a table cloth (a pattern of grays and blacks, so it wouldn’t show the grime and ash which, a few hours after the tragedy, coated everything and was everywhere).

The deserted street was interrupted by groups of site workers going to or coming from what she’d later call Ground Zero, workers who were firefighters or EMTs or construction workers. Today they were all from New York, though in the days to come, when she ran out of food and water but still took down to her card table towels soaked in tap water, they’d be from Philly and Central Jersey and Stamford, Connecticut.

Some wanted to talk. Some were tired, eyes and blood and heart fatigued. They sat on the curb with her for a minute before heading back to the firehouse, where she imagined they’d sit in a stupor a little longer, a weary and heavy silence among the greater silence blanketing the city and the nation. She wanted her damp towels to wipe clean the grief which deepened every day, every hour, when they learned there would be no pulling of survivors every few minutes, no need for the blood drives people came to, arms at the ready.

She sat on the ashy curb every day, all day, and was tired, taking sadness from the workers. She never wondered what they saw, or what it was like. She sat with them and knew that knowing as they knew was too much.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

JJ Thorpe gets published

It's true. I'm published. (And on my first attempt...crazy lucky, I am.)

Papirmasse Postcard Issue

Thanks, Kirsten, for liking my work...and for being willing to publish a story about dog pee.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

My work in upcoming Papirmasse summer vacation issue

I am honored to have a story featured in Papirmasse's "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" issue, which is out in September and features postcards with art and stories.

What is Papirmasse? "For only $60 a year, our subscribers receive a new art print in the mail every month, with an image on the front and writing on the back. We showcase an exciting range of emerging talent from around the globe. There are no hidden fees, no added shipping charges, no tricks: $5 each for 12 art prints."

Pretty great stuff. I also recommend their Facebook page for short, entertaining bits.

Honored, I tell ya.

Deer meets Car in the suburbs

Main Street was busy for a Monday at 10:30am, and that was too bad for the deer. I was startled to see him cut across oncoming traffic, head down and loping clumsily. This stretch of road was very commercial and not a normal place to see a deer. I couldn’t tell if he was going to pass in front of the silver wagon two cars in front of me or get clipped, and I noticed half a beat later I was holding my breath. A long moment held, then he bounced straight up off the car’s front, twirling, legs stiff and extended like he was a blow-up doll. He tumbled end over end, unnaturally, popping off into the grass. All of us tapped our brakes as if a community, each recoiling and hyperaware. Another long pause, and the deer leapt up and loped back across the road to the small thicket from where he’d come. I was shaken, witnessing something so violent and out of place for my suburban town, and I mused about the effects of seeing real violence instead of an animal getting unnaturally knocked around.

Three hundred feet down the road, I grabbed eggs and arugula for the evening’s quiche and salad and passed the same way again. Why I thought to look toward that thicket, I don’t know, but there he was—had to be the same animal, standing very still under a tree, head facing the road, watching. I wondered if it was in shock, maybe experiencing internal bleeding and minutes from collapsing in death. That's as close as soccer moms like me get to violence and death, other than heart attacks and 9/11. Realizing that makes me feel weak and small, and I snap at my toddler, who prods me with a licorice stick from the back seat. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Childless, childfree, happy, and sad

I watch the child dance around the museum lobby. She wears a white tutu, matching headband, and rapturous smile. She is the fourth ridiculously happy toddler I’ve seen in just an hour here, my weekly torture. I want a baby. I cannot have one. Adoption and surrogacy are out, per my wife, though I’m not sure if she truly objects to those routes or is punishing me for my infertility. I’ve caught her looking at me with the withering, disgusted look one reserves for smelly drunks or boors in the supermarket checkout line, hating to share oxygen with me. I do my best to stay out of the house these days, visiting this museum, the park three blocks down, and the every-so-often coffee shop which is now my second home. I’m happy to have the excuse of being a writer so as not to raise a red flag with the owner, a gregarious hippy who stands behind the counter every moment of the day with her husband, chatting nonstop with her customers. She has taken a liking to me, telling me weekly with watery eyes how I remind her of her brother who ODed on heroin thirty years ago, a peach of a guy with an addictive personality and lousy friends.

These days, I speak more with her than my wife as she sits with me a few minutes every day, asking me about my book. She too is childless but seems happy as a clam, and I wonder if it was a choice or, like me, something put in her path for her to work around. If the former, it seems she made the right call, though I suppose one never knows: Will you suddenly decide you should’ve been a parent after all? And if it was the latter, she appears to be more than at peace with where she is today: happy—joyful, even—and fulfilled by her work, her lover, and her customers, those with and without kids, who rush in for her impressive candy bar, set low to the ground for easy drooling and grasping.

I hope I get to the peaceful place. I wonder if I will arrive with or without my wife.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

An enjoyable visual and audio discombobulation

Scene: my regular coffee shop

I hear the thunderous rumble of motorcycles and look up from my paperback. Through the coffee shop window, I see pull up on the sidewalk a red motorized scooter bearing a wizened old man wearing combat boots, jean cut-off shorts, a pristine white t-shirt, and thick glasses barely visible under an equally pristine ball cap. 

His hand turns the key to power down the scooter as the motorcycles simultaneously disappear into town.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Crillion

I strolled through the Hôtel Crillon’s sumptuous lobby and turned right, pulled into the elegant Winter Garden by the dulcet tones of the harpist I enjoy so much. I am a creature of habit: I stay here on each and every visit to Paris, and I take an espresso here every afternoon, enjoying the harp and the fine beverage and snack menu. But today, my habit faced a roadblock: A lovely woman, her back to me, showing off a narrow waist, was in my regular seat. I walked by her, discreetly glancing to glimpse her face. She didn’t see this, concentrating as she was on finding the largest of the crude lumps of dark sugar for her café au lait. I took a step to move past her but decided, at the last minute, to turn and face her, hoping I could summon a remark witty and charming enough to solicit an invitation to join her—or at least yield a “yes” when I asked to sit with her.

I did, and she did, and we passed the afternoon laughing and drinking—quickly moving on to champagne—before heading down the street to the Arc de Triomphe. We took pictures of each other up top, the Eiffel Tower looming gray in the background, then more photos trying on sunglasses at Chanel. We ambled and strolled, finding ourselves in the 16th district near a lovely family bistro, where we dined. Her room at the Crillion, she sighed just the right amount, wasn’t her usual room, and she didn’t love it. More champagne caused me to invite her back to stay with me in my room, and she did.

I cancelled my meetings for Friday, and after the hotel delivered her favorite breakfast of strawberries, fresh cream, and their buttery croissants, we continued to explore the city. We lunched at the Gare de Lyon’s elegant Le Train Bleu, marveled at the Arab Institute’s innovative automated window sun shades, and sat outside the Louvre, admiring art through the windows but never going in. That evening, after champagne at the Pavillon Elysée Lenôtre, we shared hot frites and a croque monsieur at Pasteur Café on the Left Bank, then strolled by the Sorbonne, the Panthéon, and the many cafes which grew literary geniuses like moss. 

The next day brought more of the same: more champagne, the richest desserts, the most stunning art and architecture, and the most beautiful Hermès scarf I couldn't resist buying her after hearing the squeal its silkiness on her neck elicited. I blush now thinking how pleased I was to please her.

The third morning, I found her gone upon awakening, the remains of her beloved croissants littering a plate on a cart I had not heard enter the chamber. Noticing her small bag was missing, I was mildly concerned and inquired with the efficient front desk clerk, who had no record of a guest named Olive Snell.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Part of a day in Bellagio, and views of Lake Como

Bellagio inspires chivalry in men and adoration of their men in women. It moves couples to hold hands. There are no singles here. Even on motorcycles, there are pairs. The riders walk the esplanade, helmet in one hand, lover in the other.

Big honeybees are an orangey yellow which match the pollen weighing down their interflower flights. I amble back from a walk through Villa Melzi’s gardens, sit under a nearby magnolia tree set back from the path, and inhale. As always, I have a book. My brother always chides me for reading whist surrounded by natural beauty—“you’ll surely miss something extraordinary with your nose buried in the pages.” I lift my head from time to time, always lucky enough to see a small sailboat pass picturesquely or a mother kiss the top of her child’s head.

A bench opens up on the water’s edge, and I scurry to claim it and its unfettered views.

They take off awkwardly, as expected—ducks seem to do nothing, save float, with grace. As they turn away from Bellagio, their underwings flash white as the sun I seek comes out. A small sigh escapes me, a rare acknowledgement my brother was right. I read on, distracted only by a gelato craving and a rotund brown Dachshund fascinated with my feet.

Swallows undulate above and below the alley’s plane trees with increasing frequency as dusk approaches. Some would say I’ve once again wasted the day.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What's different on weekends

Steps away from my hotel is tiny Menaggio’s Piazza Garibaldi, or what we’d call the town’s main hub, though there are villas here on Lake Como with larger terraces. It’s been the place this and last week where I’ve had more than my fair share of red wine, sitting outside with a book (several books, at this point) to take in the scenery and overhear as much Italian as possible in my attempt to improve my language skills with minimal work. During the week, the scene is tourists and any locals who happen to take an espresso next to you at the bar, though you probably don’t choose the bar over a table unless you’re running late, but it’s vacation, so you’re not.

Weekends have regular rhythms too, but these involve the town residents. On Saturday evenings, very close to seven, tiny Italian women fill the piazza, grasping each others’ arms in what seems both a greeting and a way to steady themselves. Their husbands trail behind, shuffling with what is neither delight or sadness. There is a buzz in the piazza missing from weekday evenings, when tourists, happy but tired, talk low. Saturday night brings meetings and greetings and a cheerful excitement, and then without a rush but not slowly, they move toward restaurants.

I follow, momentarily forgetting that my two weeks here has meant I’ve now eaten at every establishment in town, even with day trips to Bellagio, Varenna, Lecco, and even Lugano. Recalling this as I pass one of the town’s many gelaterias, convinced I can smell the dark chocolate flavor I crave, I step inside and remind myself my trip is about to end, so dessert for dinner is wholly acceptable. My friend behind the counter agrees and greets me, for we are not strangers at this point.