Sunday, December 1

Were You the Last to Go to Bed?

EVEN BEFORE MY alarm finally went off, I had been waking throughout the night in fits of anxiety, worried that I would oversleep and miss my plane. I got out of bed in the forever dark nothing alone of three-thirty a.m. and took a shower. The taxi was waiting outside for me; work had paid; the driver was respectably dressed in an ironed white shirt and, once I had finished my cigarette (‘No, don’t worry, finish your cigarette’) we set out on my way. He didn’t talk and so the car—a spacious Mercedes—rode along quietly and I looked through the window at the city as it struggled into another day of motion. Along the motorways that rivered through the town, I was in love. The houses sat next to the road, all in blackness except for the ruffled dress of streetlight and all the windows extinguished hours ago, the residents sleepy and sleeping.
Once more I was in love with the city.
I fell asleep, as was my wont, and woke up at the north terminal. I was so happy that he hadn’t tried to talk to me, this driver of mine, that I tipped him and we wished each other a good day. When the air is pregnant, the hour early, cold does not seem so cold and if it is cold, then it is forgivable. I was forty-five minutes early so I took my place and had a smoke, watching the arrivals—English speaking or no—clodding into the departures gate, steaming with happiness. Inside, the Christmas trees were quietly glowing. The first Christmas tree I’ve seen, I thought. I wandered around, between somnambulist onlookers, tired eyes, their heaped bags. I got a coffee and waited.
I was introduced to the rest of the party, five other men, and we made our move through security. We were off to Venice, to a factory, and I had been told by my boss to go along, that I must be on my best behaviour, my most intelligent and inquisitive—a tall order I struggled with, especially at that hour.
The plane hummed over the Alps. I looked down and saw tiny village splatters in the cracks of the great European spine. The plane crashes into the mountain. I die. I saw it all and gripped the armrests. Previously I had the romantic notion—If I die on this plane, it was because I was going to see Her (and Her is only one Her, a forever bleeding Her and a wonderful person no matter what), and it will be worth it. But that romance has died on the vine and now I would just perish without a flower in my lapel.
At the last moment, our plane was diverted due to a strike. We landed and alighted and there was brilliant sunshine so bright and the cold grasp of autumn all over us.
Italy.
O, hello, Italy, you whom I’ve heard so much about.
I was on Italian soil and looking out over Italian land that, flat as a snooker table, angled upwards into the distant snowy chaos of the Alps; permenantly clinging to the background, their white tips miraged clouds where there were none. Although, a stroke of luck, the factory abandoned for the day and we six strangers were mounted, finally, on the city of Venice. Shadows flowered long from our heels; the November sun too tired to warm. Here and there passed Italian women, shrouded in black, with black eyes and always colourfully-cheeked.
And, of course, the city of Venice! rippling forever in its slow sink into century-old silt.
Venice was, my stunned eyes beholding, everything I had come to believe it would be. The city was a film set and all the actors and actresses were in their trailers, lighting cheap cigars and flirting with makeup artists. How old was this stucco? So quickly the sun set, colours so rare to the paleness of the season arose like gurgling fire and set off the water; valiantly they gurgled on the surface, breaking, drifting, rejoining, caught in an endless waltz of blue orange passion and valour. We got on a boat that took us to a place I cannot recall the name of, where we got something to eat and a beer. I slowly sussed out the men from the group whom I enjoyed—most certainly a man who looked like a third-rate comedian and constantly asked to borrow my lighter; I found myself drawn to him, occasionally following his footsteps and not letting him out of my sight, though I was many years his junior. Our train leaving soon, we made a dash for Piazza San Marco. In the eerie cold quiet it was largely unattended. Loose vendors lingered, selling tat; one eager tourist was surrounded by a cloud of feckless pigeons, and the architecture, the jewel in the crown, stood tall around us and, surprised upon us as it was, remained difficult to absorb. As strange as I was to these people, I could not voice my enjoyment nor share it with them, for all I was excited by was mine alone. To cast my sight upon the worn architraves of churches and not say a word!
The wind blew in the train and blew through the train. I fastened my coat and curled myself up. A stunning Italian girl sat nearby. Our group had split up and the two other men—probably the two I was most fond of—were with me. They spoke about work and I endeavoured to pay attention before I fell asleep in the awkward position I maintained in the aisle.
The train ride was long. We ventured further into the night. ‘This is it,’ said our guide and we were in a small Italian town where everything was shut and not a soul could be heard.
A steakhouse on the opposite side of the piazza from the hotel, owned by a Canadian-Italian who, out of the whole group, fixed his eyes on me, gruffly shared his wisdom on steaks and talked of the different cuts and the nationalities and, each of us salivating from the corners of our mouths, tempted us but the guide—‘Nah, I wanna take you to a proper Italian place … this is really just a steakhouse.’ I would have eaten anything you put in front of me. Still, the piazza was quiet. Long winds rushed. Six Englishmen noisily charged down the street. We took our place in a quiet restaurant where, the waiters lounging around, there were only two other occupants: a pair of ladies, immaculately collected, chatting over an empty bottle of wine and light glasses. A little radio bled out. They talked, considered us, talked on. They were beautiful, each of them, and I happily took my seat. We ate a great deal of fine food and drank a great deal of fine wine and I took leave from the table to smoke and was joined by my new friend, where, in the cold courtyard, we discussed music and the things we loved, such as Robert Johnson and food and hip hop. We talked about America and I recited unto him—‘Jazz and hip hop are the two true American art forms.’ And he, gleaming from his eyes, tapped his drink against mine and told me—‘You know what? … I like you.’
Our bellies full, we penetrated the streets of the small town and looked for somewhere to get a nightcap. I spotted—‘That place looks open…’ and we went in. Three firemen in uniform were stood at the bar, looking at the t.v. In the back was a small group of people who looked like they were discussing business. Behind the bar were two eastern European girls who, in typical eastern European fashion, were too good to look at. We got one round of nightcaps, then another, then another. Soon we were sparring with the barmaids as they concocted shot after shot. I sank whatever was put in front of me; fires were started, people gagged, stories were told. We stayed for a few hours, then left. I could not walk straight on the precious cobblestones and, yes, truly holy, everything felt good.
The time had come to turn in. A couple of them stayed up to walk around the town but I was tired and could hardly stand any longer. Another paragraph had been added to the story of my life, of that I was certain, and now I record things here that serve no justice other than to pass the time in writing.

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