August 20, 3020
I’m writing to you from the Bar Apostoli on the Via Arche Scaligere in Verona. The owner, who is very charming, has offered to collect my mail while I occupy the upstairs room. If you respond to this letter, direct your reply here. If you don’t want to write back, that’s fine, too.
I’ve surprised myself by liking it here. The espresso is badly burnt, but endurable with the risini, so sugary my teeth itch. Good thing those don’t decay these days. They say that the house wine is excellent but I wouldn’t know about that, anymore. I’ve a job through the harvest in the vineyards on the hills outside the city. Corvina, Molinara, Rondinella. The same fruit they raisined on the ear here before the Freeze, maybe even before that – and now, still.
After that, I don’t know where I’ll go. I forgot how large this kingdom – of mine – used to be.
The picking, sorting, stomping – mind-numbingly tedious. I imagined I would have time in the evenings to sketch in my book a little, to walk, gulp the hot night smell off the river. But I find that when I end my shift, the last thing I want is to go back out into the oppression of summer, or do anything with my scratched, sunburnt hands. Instead, I come in and lie in my bed. I look at the streetlamp in my window, bathing the cobblestones orange, and fall asleep straightaway. There’s no space to think about anything. Maybe this is why I’m happy.
You won’t think it’s strange that I write you this letter. Old-fashioned, surely: a borrowed pen low on ink, no foreign and glittering crystal wires. My idiosyncrasies will have failed to shock you. But it’s strange for me to write you when we haven’t met in this life. I feel like the same man, though I don’t know if you are. When we were in Berlin Ami told me she thought you hadn’t changed in the ways that matter. So I hope you won’t judge me; you never did it before.
Maybe you want to know if I will come back, reconcile myself with our past, as you have. Let me tell you something. Here, nobody knows me and I don’t know them. It’s wonderful, being unseen. I feel myself grow lighter every day as expectations peel off me like scales. And it’s no lack of responsibility, not a fear of work. I wear my rough hat and shoes and trudge among the vines like any laborer; if I smile no one understands why, or that I used to own even the dust that shines on the wind. Junin, I am vanishing. Soon I won’t be anyone at all.
I’ll tell you the truth, if you want to hear it. I don’t know if I will ever come back.
You’ll have heard where I am. I was sitting by the Ponte Pietra watching them dredge the river. The machines are always going. Less now in Ferragosto, but still whirring, grinding, pulling up from the Adige things lost in the Freeze. Much of it expected 21st century bilge – but they also found something unexpected. A silver miniature, of unknown age. Its features – the caduceus, winged serpents – point to Hermes, or more likely, Roman Mercury, but what stymied the professors who gathered round, poring over the little statue’s remarkably intact beauty – was that it clearly depicted a woman. They speculated she might’ve been a priestess of high rank. Possibly a hermaphrodite. Certainly I volunteered no thoughts on the matter.
Mercury. Never where you expect, the message bearer. God of the road, herald of change.
They have installed her in the dingy local museum. I went the other day. In front of her glass case there is a pink marble bench that has been worn smooth by many a generous arse; when I entered the room a tired young mother was attempting to keep her daughter from gumming it. Once they left, I sat there a while. I brought a sketchbook, but didn’t open it.
It’s nothing new, after all. I still see you everywhere.
Full midday. He skirted around the shaded edge of the Piazza Sant’Anastasia, evading a group of wide-eyed tourists from Crystal Tokyo conferring excitedly with their holos, hardly looking at the facade rising before them. They would have come via Milan, gone fully crystal now, too. On their way to see what remained of Venice bobbing languidly on the Adriatic. Likely they had not seen a thing constructed in earth, stone, or wood in over a century.
As he narrowly escaped being overrun by a secondary contingent of grade schoolers, he bumped into a petite woman on his other side. “Mi scusi,” he said, and she nodded.
The entry to the church was being roped off but Jozef made his way in just as the music began. It wasn’t a well attended Mass, though perhaps moreso than usual, some people coming in only to escape the midday heat, others to hear the choir, known to be superlative. Blinking in the relative dimness from outside, he quickly found a spot in the back pew.
The organ swelled to fill the cavernous space, shot through by shafts of daylight, signalling the beginning of the Agnus Dei. Sensation, disorientingly familiar, washed over as he sat. He breathed the cool, dry incense, smell of resin and wax staining the soaring cathedral’s bones. Jozef let his eyes drift shut as he fingered the edge of his shirt. Felt out the ancient chords. He wasn’t devout, lapsed much longer than ever before, but still his mouth formed the words. The flat, unforgiving bench under his knees was as known to him as his own body.
He remembered the wide, lucid dark of her eyes, studying his profile while he kept his gaze straight ahead on the pulpit. Ami had never truly understood his odd faith but neither had she shrank from his blasphemy. Her bare thigh yielding and warm under his wandering fingers, damp with sweat where it pressed the pew. Starch in the pleats of her long skirt.
When he opened his eyes he saw her there, a few benches over. The woman from outside.
He could see part of her profile as she leaned forward, attentive to the music. Long lashes and refined nose, mouth small and soft and fresh as flowers. The rest hidden behind a smooth crop of dark hair. Idly, he wondered if she was pretty. It had been a long time.
He studied her a few more seconds, force of extended habit, and then turned front.
The hour vanished swiftly. When the Mass ended, he stood and pulled his sunglasses from his pocket, the last mellifluous voice of the choir still ringing like a struck bell in his ear.
Outside it was still bright, even behind his glasses. Ravenous, he fell in with the chain smoking, chattering crowd trekking to the Piazzetta Pescheria for a spot by the river. Jozef moved a little slower than they, deliberately trailing. He put his hands in the pockets of his linen trousers, looking in the shops. He had unpacked a good shirt and polished moccasins for church and tied his hair loosely instead of the frazzled knob he left it in while working. As he paused by a glove shop, admiring a sienna kid pair, in the window he glimpsed himself.
The man he saw could’ve been a graduate student, roving artist, or snobbish waiter at the tavern. Young, slender. The pallor he was accustomed to seeing, as if from lengthy illness, had given way to an even freckled tan. Knife-bone shoulders flung back and forearms wiry with new muscle. There was a not displeasing firmness straightening the thin, curled mouth. Jozef pensively surveyed his reflection another moment. Then he moved on.
A steaming sort of afternoon, sun radiating stovelike off the rose-roofed buildings. All around him the odor of rice and onions in broth made his stomach growl, and he felt the beginnings of a headache from thirst. But there was no point speeding his step; far too many people around, in front. It was not the first discipline he’d taught himself, not the first rigor. So he kept his pace, patient in his appetite, the gnawing in his belly an insistent diversion.
When he thought of her it was like that. A kind of carefully tended hungering, a meal you’d feasted on as a child, and never tasted the richness of again. His letter burned in his pocket.
At times like this his mind drifted to her, in liminalities, between one thing and the next. The north of his old kingdom winding down south, from ripe summer to autumn. From liturgy to gluttony. Something was embedded, there; a wish perhaps. When she’d found him all those decades ago, before he’d even taken the Crystal, he’d been at the starting point of so many things. Ami had never yet seen him on the road. How far he’d come, where he meant to go.
The narrow sidewalk spilled him into the piazzetta opposite the Adige. Having queued for and got a cheap panino of oozing cheese with sardines and a water bottle, he walked the few metres to the stone wall overlooking and hunkered down, tearing off an enormous bite as he did, one leg dangling, watching passerby. Above, the dome of the sky was brilliantly blue. Bells had begun tolling the hour across the bridge. No coolness off the river, but a few trees overhanging were dripping acid yellow, and he mused that the evening would be chill. All at once, the mundaneness of his thoughts – their banality – shocked him anew with pleasure.
He sat there awhile, feeling sun on his cheeks, leaves rustling overhead. Soon the harvest would be over, his credits run out, and he would need to begin thinking where to go next.
Jozef licked slippery cheese and fish salt from the edge of his lip, and then he saw her again.
She was sitting with her back to him at one of the rickety little tables lined up alongside the embankment. The same woman he’d bumped into, and noticed again inside the cathedral.
He could see her better, now. She was wearing a sleeveless poplin dress, exactly the color of cut peaches and quite long, showing only a pretty pair of ankles and soft leather flats. From where he sat he had a clear view of her table. Her hands were poised in the air, holding fork and knife, descending; there was a steaming bowl of sauced polenta in front of her, and a small glass of palely fizzing beer. A little breeze moved the short dark hair off her neck.
For an instant he froze, and then, gradually, his muscles unseized, one by one. It wasn’t – it couldn’t be – her. Still, he couldn’t help looking. The resemblance was almost uncanny.
She was engrossed in a novel, holo scrolling before her, and without meaning to he thought again of Berlin. While there Ami had read her way through every scrap of paper he owned, or left lying around: school primers, technical manuals, newspapers, pornography, poetry, receipts, sheet music, it hadn’t mattered. There’d been a kind of ferocity to her intellect, an inclusiveness or maybe avidity; every kind of knowledge had appetized her. He remembered her precise, light fingers, curiously mapping his sternum, his trembling stomach. Constellating the cigarette burns along his hipbone, and finally circling the swollen wet of his cock.
Because he was alone, because he had time, and nowhere to be, Jozef allowed himself to indulge in the memory. That tiny studio flat, its high viridian ceilings; acrid smell of sweat mingled with plaster; her shirts’ tiny pearlescent buttons; baby fineness of her hair in his fist. Her breathing slowing as they lay side by side. When they met they said little, sometimes no words at all. Sometimes in his letters he alluded to these things, knowing she wouldn’t respond in kind. Her replies were always careful, clipped, a primmed complexity, and yet he knew that these things shared the same living spaces of her mind as everything else.
More: Ami’s look of concentration as she touched him; the muffled quiet of that upstairs flat, as though every other sound had been put on mute; the surprising resonance of her voice, like a silver spoon tapped against a teacup. The clear recognition surfacing from her eyes, which she had given to even his heaviest self, in hindsight. Before he’d shed what he needed to, at the very beginning of the road.
Like pressing a thumb to a faded bruise he thought a little further along that way; inevitable, for him, that once he started it became difficult to stop. After the way things had ended it had taken him a span of years to begin writing to her. Little notes at first, hardly anything. He still didn’t really know why he did it. Perhaps so there could be words for them, after all. He hadn’t expected that she would write back.
The woman lifted the fork to her mouth, flipping to something else on her holo. Her hands were small and very pale, like the inside of a shell. She moved like Ami did, unswerving, with a graceful economy of motion. With hands like that, he thought, she could be a surgeon, a harpist; equally likely, a young professor, or an accountant. Maybe her hands had nothing to do with her profession. He noticed that with each bite she broke her gaze from the holo to look down at what she was eating. Her focus on what she was doing whole, complete. Though he couldn’t see it he imagined her putting forkfuls of food in her mouth, swallowing sips of beer, lips closing entirely around each, and in his knees he felt something like a weakness. When he looked at his hands they were empty, panino vanished, water drunk.
Jozef stared down at his palms, briefly astonished, then glanced up.
She was stacking her finished bowl and glass with one hand, gathering her handbag with the other. Something about the angle of her cheek struck him; he was suddenly disoriented by panic. As he drew a breath he saw her hair shivered with brilliant blue lights under the sun.
It was her, her. Her, obvious.
His own shout startled him. “Ami!”
She hadn’t heard. He jumped down, wiping hands on pants, scattering pigeons before him. A few frost-haired men in three-piece suits turned to glare his way. Jozef, generally lacking in fucks to dole out, didn’t spare any now. On his way he nearly upended a chair. “Ami.”
She was digging through her bag, placing a few credits on the table, then going back in for something else. As he sped his steps the details resolved themselves into clarity – the Mannerist throat, delicate wire glasses being pulled from a case, a diffidence in her posture that he knew belied sureness. He walked faster, almost breaking into an undignified run.
Just before he reached her a thought expanded in the space of his mind, so blindingly clear he wanted to laugh, lightheaded. I wanted to see her. And then: maybe, I still want to be seen.
Without an intelligible word in his head he touched her shoulder softly.
“Ami – ” he began.
She turned around, eyebrows flying up, a smile touching her gentle mouth.
“Ci conosciamo?” said the stranger.