after james salter
They talked as evening fell. She’d appeared in the doorway at Harry’s Bar in Venice, barelegged but in heels. It was her voice he remembered from their days in New York, scornful and warm above the shrieking subway.
The lights came on in the buildings surrounding the piazza. She stared at a table of people, merry across the room and loud as Russians. Light gleamed from the polished wood of the bar. Lines of glasses stood as icy soldiers on the narrow shelves.
Something was missing in him. Women had always done anything to find out what it was. Across the room someone was saying, “When you’ve been married you want to be married again.”
American college girls burst drunk into the bar. A half hour later six girls in unison kicked their bare legs in the brilliant light, to scattered applause. She drank looking directly at him. Across the room the conversation continued. Americans. “Women fall in love when they get to know you,” one of them said. “Men are just the opposite. When they finally know you they’re ready to leave.”
The bartender passed a dense icy glass to the man seated next to them. Outside, the first winds of autumn ruffled the green water of the Grand Canal, wide as a river. A giant cruise ship was in port. Bilge water poured from its stern. He wished again that he was in love.
“In Barcelona,” she was saying, “is a cathedral by Antonio Gaudi, an architect more like a saint.” She filled her lungs with smoke from her cigarette. “He was hit by a streetcar walking to church. He lay in the street, bleeding. No one recognized him.” He reached for her. She let herself be held. “The cathedral that was never built,” she said. “It has doors that lead both ways into empty air.”
They walked out of the bar. A wave of pigeons rose into the air before a trotting dog. The lights in some palazzos flickered on. In the curtained upper floors, he imagined the long legs of countesses uncoiled, shaved and smooth, slithering on silk sheets. The sky became violet. Two men sat at a small table trimming artichokes. The blue cars of the carabiniere. Bags of rice and dry beans beside the table where the men continued their work. A girl with a tailored coat walked past them with a scarf wrapped around her head. He knew that his life was clarifying.
A taxi pulled up and she stepped inside, pulling him in behind her. The car rattled the narrow street. They drove to Verona. The points of the tall steeples. Schoolgirls in dark skirts and blouses blindingly white. One stood off by herself. Her pale legs shook like small sticks. The woman made the taxi stop for the girl. That was me, she said to him. She whispered words to her in Italian. The girl beside them in the taxi, the window of the Mercedes gliding up. It started to rain. His room was on the corner. A long dark corridor, heavy drapes of forest green and matching cushions on the white window sills. The towels a pale green with the name of the hotel in white.
The girl did not look at any of this. He knelt to remove her shoes. She peeled a strip of pink paper from a menu on the nightstand. Her fingernails were short and clear. In the morning there will be breakfast rolls and cappuccino. A sliced pear. Gleaming spoons on a starched white tablecloth. His life was simple. In the morning the air will be pure and cool.