The 46th STEP
Once they met again in Bergamo.
They had not seen each other for a year and a half, and their correspondence had been growing gradually less. Less frequent. Less lengthening. Less alluring.
He knew she had been living with a woman for some time now. If it was the girl she had told him about from before, or someone new, he was unsure. She never said anything about her, and he made sure never to ask.
But he had been able to tell that she was happy now, and coming ever closer to catching and holding that elusive thing for which she had been searching.
Somehow she had tracked him down and called him.
It was over. Ended. And she was alone again. She did not say how it had ended. He forced himself not to ask. She told him she needed to see him again.
She did not say why.
He did not ask.
Neither of them had been there before, to Bergamo. But she had been in Italy often. At first with family, then with friends, and then alone, to visit friends she had made there. And during those times she had learnt a good deal of the language.
They rented an inexpensive, single room apartment from someone that she had known once, or who she still knew well. An old friend, anyway. And someone else about whom, she never wished to talk.
The room lay at the back of one of those calm, gated courts that are so particularly Italian. At the top of a flight of 46 worn stone steps. Hiding behind an old wooden door with stained glass, brass and shutters.
But before he even saw the room he heard its music. The door was ajar.
Distant, but clear. Refreshing and relaxing. Washing clear the mind. Salving the soul. The fountain sounds of tumbling waters.
The room itself was quite plain really. The cool, tiled floor and the dark, bare beamed ceiling. More stained glass—just a small circle of it set high up, it caught the light and cast strange, kaleidoscope patterns that moved with the day across the floor and opposing walls.
And away from the wall, at an angle to allow a glimpse of tiled roofs and oddly shaped chimneys and sky, was the bed. White sheets bright in the dim, shuttered light. Washed in the mild water-noises. Like a trick, or a trap. A silken snare. A prison designed just to hold him.
At the very rear of the flat was a small balcony that looked up over the rooftops to a far, towered corner of the grey-blue and hazy Cita Alta. And down also, to the narrow walled-in stream, which shared its song with them.
Emerging in a small fall, from beneath the stone of the neighbouring building, the river ran steeply down a stone sided channel to the canal at the bottom of their street. Nasturtiums dangled from the walls and wildflowers grew from the cracks.
Insects hovered and darted above the water. Swifts swept down from the sky and caught them.
They spent many of their hours together in the room, sitting, drinking in the view in moments. With coffee in the mornings and wine at other times. When they were not in bed, entwined, bodies and eyes, drinking each other in.
And through the night, the noise of the rushing water came up to them, like late summer rain falling heavily on the tops of roofs. She said it soothed her back to sleep if ever she woke. He often lay awake in the dark, listening to its music.
She had hardly changed at all—was almost exactly as she were in the sunshine on the first day they met.
The hair the way he loved it. Her colours and tones of her body: all just as he remembered. And the night-black lines of the dragon, still coiled in the skin of her shoulder.
The same smile, although possibly a shade sadder. The same green eyes that seemed to see him so clearly, but maybe, maybe a little darker.
She told him little. He asked few questions. And they slipped back easily into each other as they always had before, that created world from which he wished they might never need to return from.
They hardly left that room at all, except maybe to stroll down the walls of the old town, as the late evening haze overcame the early evening light. Alone except for the other lovers. Strolling. Sitting, staring out, atop the wall. Reclining against each other on benches. Listening to the music trickle out from the terraces, from the open doors and windows of the old grand houses that clung to the steep sides of the hill above the ramparts.
Sometimes they went to eat long dinners in the restaurants around the local square. Outside, under green and white striped awnings, looking back up at narrow aspects of the old town, or deep in secret corners, and rooms at the backs of restaurants, invisible amidst the noise from the tables of families around them.
Once she took him up to Bellagio and he told her it was the kind of place he could definitely live, if he ever had the money. At the very least, he said, they should go back again someday, and spend a little more time there together.
One morning when they had been in Bergamo for almost two weeks, he surfaced into the half-light, from the dark pools of his dreams, and discovered she was not with him amidst the sheets.
A note on the door asked him to meet her later at a café they especially liked, but it gave no clue to why or where she had gone.
It wasn't quite turning to autumn yet, but the summer was growing older and thinner and the mornings were starting to cool, although fine afternoons still followed. So he dressed warmly and took a book and found a sunny corner outside under some chestnuts and read for a while.
When the day got warmer he walked on up through small streets and alleys to Bar Perry, and drank a beer in the shade by the old fountain while he read some more and waited.
Eventually she appeared around mid afternoon. There, suddenly, visible beyond a passing crowd going down from the old town. As always when they met he could see her smiling even from a distance. Despite herself. Eyes blazing, seeing only him.
As always he felt amazed she was so uncontrollably glad to see him.
Now other thoughts were there too;
How little her appearance and her ways had been altered by the last two years.
Would she always seem so unchanged?
What did the others she had been with think? Was she even the same person with those others, as when they were together?
Was she the same with that special other, from whom she had stumbled back to him?
The thoughts were there, but it was strange how little they disturbed him. Strange indeed, when he thought about the past. When he thought again, about his own, lost and allusive other.
Strange how few things disturbed him when she was there.
How her eyes drove away all thoughts of hurtful things.
How her presence healed him. Was any of this is truly happening?
Maybe one day he would trip and fall back down into the real world.
And all of this would fade away, like the things a child fears in the dark, revealed as nothings in the morning. He rose and kissed her, and then they sat. Chairs close. Knees, shoulders, hands. His right, her left. Barely touching. Barely ever not touching. Each aware of the other.
Both of them smiling gently. The moment grew at once and lengthened.
More tourists passed by, going back to hotels, buses and trains.
People came home to lunch and left again. At the other tables, orders and conversations and the people who made them changed.
'Do you think that any of this is real?' she asked.
'These last days, they have been so perfect. Is it like a dream?
The world outside, for all I can tell, we have left it. Or is it that it has let us go?
But I know that cannot really be. Or at least, it cannot be forever.
I know at some point it must end, and then we will have to cross back over'
Her eyes strayed and rested on his book upon the table. An old copy of Fiesta. He sensed a bitterness in her that had never been there before.
'I read that book when I was young', she said, 'An old DDR copy from a library. With a terribly illustrated cover. I didn’t really like it, and I may have scribbled what I thought, down upon some of the pages. If I remember correctly.’
A laugh. Her laugh. Gentle, yet earnest. He wished she laughed more often. He wished it would go on, and on. But then the point she had wished to make, eased itself back in.
‘I got it as a gift a few years ago. A modern edition. And I decided to re-read it. To see if I enjoyed it more. Or if there were any great differences between the translations.'
'No real differences at all. In the book or my opinion. I mean, I could appreciate a little more, some of the things he was trying to express. After all, only those who have been torn, can truly understand the feeling. But even so, I still found it rather pointless.'
'Yes. I mean, it's not that I object particularly to the subject matter or way it's written. Or that I think that it's celebrated themes are all just a lot of nonsense for superior readers to find, and fiddle over. It's just that, at the end of it all, it does rather seem to lack a point. Maybe that's why they all look so hard. To try and see what the author was saying. And what they missed.'
‘Find and fiddle over.’ His own laugh sounded coarse to him after hers. Poorly groomed, ill-educated, and under dressed. ‘Yes. I suppose I find it hard to believe myself, that all these great authors were supposedly trying to say something in their novels, but couldn’t find a clearer way to express those things they wished to. If that’s truly what they were trying to do.
After all, people will generally find what they want to find, whether the author had deliberately left the message or not.
Maybe they were just trying to make a living, these celebrated novelists, hoping to string a series of pretty words together, that someone would be willing to pay for. To make a living and a little more money to drink, without having to work too hard. Not concoct and bury riddles. Surely they could not all wish to be so damned obtuse? Surely they weren’t all such arseholes?
But this book; I do enjoy this book. Not for fashionable themes or hidden meanings. Nor even for the writing. It's just that the story, it reminds me of certain things. Things that I enjoy being reminded of. Sometimes.
I can't remember how many times I've read it already. But I do know that this won't be the last. And you know, even if I don't really find the need for one, I do still think the book has a point. But to be honest, I'm not sure it's something you'd really want to hear just now.'
'No! You can't do that! You have to tell me. Just as long as it isn't something you have got from somewhere else.'
The laugh again. And the way her eyes narrowed to slits. Dark, yet somehow still luminous. And seeing only him.
'Well I'm fairly sure the idea is all my own. At least I don't remember stealing it from someone. But are you sure you want to hear it?'
'Of course. Tell me. Please'
You see, I believe the true message, the whole point of the book, is that, well, if we are lucky enough to find someone to love, and who loves us back the same, we should do all we can to overcome whatever obstacles there might be.
Because in the end, unlike Brett and Jake, most of us don't really face obstacles that are truly insurmountable.'
Her eyes dropped. And for a long time she sat in silence, staring at her hands, or her glass. The rings left on the table by their glasses. Occasionally the book.
Eventually she looked at him again, and some decision had been made.
Her eyes held his steadily, but he had never seen them less dry or less dark.
'What is wrong, My Beautiful?'
'Beautiful eyes and beautiful words, you really can never trust them. I should have known.'
'Don't you know that even the most armoured of us, deep down, sometimes, want such things to be real?’
She took his hand.
'Come', she said, 'It's time to go.'
Later. Back in the room. Night.
They had turned on none of the lights, but the moon was high and full. Strong enough for the casting of shadows. Bright enough to see with. Still dim enough for magic to take hold.
Afterwards, after a little while, she got up from the bed and went and sat on the floor near the balcony. Her back against the frame of the door. Knees pulled up to her chin. Staring out over moonlit roofs. As if waiting for a sign, or the sun.
She rolled and lit a cigarette. Inhaled deeply, ragged ember brightening briefly. Breathed out.
The dryness of the smoke followed the sweet scent of the match strike up to the bed.
There was a large iron framed mirror resting on the floor against the opposite wall, and he lay and watched her in it as she smoked.
Her loose top had fallen to the side. One bare, browned shoulder, luminous in the moonlight. A darker shadow, where the dragon lay. Engraved. Woven into her skin.
He could see the slight wrinkling of the skin at the corners of her eyes as she watched him watching her back, knowing he was thinking of the smooth, bare shoulder and that it was not bare entirely from lack of care.
He did not need to say the teasing words, she did not need to laugh her protest. Another moment slipping into minutes, minutes becoming a sweet, silent hour. Cigarettes, distant towers, the moon, all forgotten. He, watching her reflection watching his.
For the next two days they did not leave the room at all.
Door locked. Shutters closed. Resisting everything from the outside, except for the breeze and the sound of the water from below. The prism of light on the wall, marking the passage of the hours.
She, drinking all of it in. Devouring every moment with him. Every moment of him. Every word he spoke.
Thirst for him, seeming bottomless.
And he, never quite able to have enough of her either, happily being consumed. Hoping they had found it at last. The long night they had searched for together, that did not need to fail.
'I cannot go back to her' she said slowly, carefully. Her voice coming to him from the darkness next to his pillow. No part of their bodies were touching. Was she even still there with him, or was her voice just a dream that the darkness made more real.
'I cannot go back to her because she is gone.’
The sound of the water outside, below the balcony, was loud and very cold.
‘She is dead.
And all of her thoughts. All the things I loved about her most. They just vanished and left her. Empty. Like a stranger. And I cannot help but wonder if she, if what we had, ever existed at all.'
He still had said nothing, and he wondered how she knew he was awake, or if she had spoken these words to him before whilst he slept, on all the other nights.
'How did she die?'
Silence. Longer now. Was she weeping quietly in the darkness beside him?
Then, quieter. Bitter again. 'There is nothing of her left. That is all.'
Silence. And then
'How could her eyes, say to me what they said. How could she kiss back the way she kissed. Without there being something more.'
He felt that something more lingered on the tip of her tongue in the darkness. Some argument or further explanation. Some other, deeper truth. But whatever it was remained unsaid.
A cool, slender hand reached out to him in the dark.
Shutters back. Balcony door open. Ashtray on the floor near the mirror.
He was alone once more in the bed.
For a moment he thought she was gone again, but mixed with the notes of the stream from outside was the softer, warmer sound of shower water in the bathroom.
The air was chill in the room, and the bed had never seemed so very comfortable.
He rolled and stole her cool, fragrant pillow and closed his eyes again for a while.
Eventually the water in the bathroom stopped and a few minutes later he heard the gentle noises of her moving in the room.
He rolled again, and she came to his side of the bed and sat. A fresh showered hand smoothed his forehead. Nails scratched gently through his beard.
Despite the rules he had set for himself, he had begun to hope this moment might not come.
But by now he knew her face, and he knew that she just trying to find the right words to say it.
‘I m sorry. I can't seem to find the right words. I'm so sorry’
'There's nothing to be sorry for, Beautiful. There was never anything promised.'
How strange his own voice. How very worldly. How adult about it all.
He looked up at her, looking down at him. Her hair the way he loved it. The slight wrinkling at the corner of those so green eyes. Green eyes, seeing only him.
She bent and kissed him and the hair fell about his face like a curtain, and for a while there was just the two of them again, in their own private world. Nowhere else for them to go.
Her scent and taste were the same, but the kiss was different from all those other kisses.
He had never seen her eyes less dry.
'I don’t know how long it will be before we see each other again', she said, 'So I want to give you something.'
Her voice had never been so thick.
A photograph? No. Never tears, and never a photograph. Not from her. That would not change.
'Magari.' she said, still in their special world with him, within the walls of her falling hair.
'Magari. It's Italian. it’s another one of those kinds of word, that does not really translate well into other languages. It means 'maybe', kind of. But there's a lot more to it than just that.
‘If only', or 'I wish', are better. But they do not capture it properly either. The closest I can get to its true meaning, the way I mean it, is to say it is the word that is used, when something cannot be, even though one wants it with all their heart.
I hope you can understand?'
Those terrible last five words. But somehow they sounded different the way she said them.
'Magari. Yes, I think I understand. It is a very beautiful word. But a very hard gift to take.’
A thought stuck him. Almost as if placed in his mind. Or had been there already, in some half forgotten chamber, slowly forming?
Words fell carelessly from mind to mouth and on.
'Here. I think I have something for you too.’
He reached into the drawer near the bed. His blind hand quickly finding what he sought.
A set of cufflinks. Always with him, although not often worn.
Silver, and dark blue enamel.
One of the few things he retained from his old life, before it changed.
'Here. I've had them longer than any other thing I have owned. Even longer than any of my books.
Take one. I'll keep the other.'
He forced himself to stop there. Forced other words back inside.
'You don't know how much this means to me. It’s perfect.' and he really believed she meant it, 'Thank you!'
'You're welcome, Beautiful.'
She was gone.
The bed suddenly seemed unwelcoming. The room had lost its charm.
He got up. He did not shower.
If they could have had as much of each other as they wanted, what of the things that had made it so special? Those things he could never have enough of. Could they, would they have endured that way.
And would they have still had to cross back one day, and leave the world they had made.
Would it all still have had to fade away.
He took his bag and opened the door and glanced around the room one last time.
It was not the same room any longer.
But although he missed her deeply, he did not really feel so bad.
There was cufflink that missed its pair, and what she’d said. ‘Magari’
The music of the water falling beneath the balcony came up still from outside, but he shut the door upon it and skipped down the 46 old, stone steps. Descending back into the real world for a little while.
Still not knowing.
Still blind as to what he had actually given to her.
Still not understanding, exactly what she had taken from him.
Krisu is a Manawaū writer living in Finland