It was winter, nearly carnival time, and I went to Fatebenefratelli to visit Alberto’s father nearly every day. Fatebenefratelli was not the main hospital in Venice, but one filled with old and dying patients. Some of them screamed from morning until night, some believed they were children again, and some, who just could not be managed at home anymore, expressed anger at the betrayal that had brought them there by staring off in a sullen, accusing silence. The hospital was located in the Cannaregio quarter, far from the main tourist routes and the shops that sold masks, blown glass objects, and gondolier hats. One had the feeling there that the Venetians lived as they had lived for hundreds of years. Weeds grew tall around the stone walls of the large, now defunct, wells that sat in the middle of the campi—squares, and wildflowers and tall grasses, traces of the long gone fields paved over with stone, sprouted between the stones by the buildings where few footsteps trod them down. The brick foundations were noticeably crumbling and it was quiet except for the hollow sound of a local’s footsteps crossing the campo, or the tap tap tap of a child skipping down the steps of a small bridge, the low hum of a boat mooring, or workers calling out to each other in Venetian with deep, guttural voices as they maneuvered a barge laden with bags of cement down a narrow canal, or the splash of water against the fondamento as a flatboat piled with crates of vegetables headed to the market in Rialto.
In the overall quiet though, I could hear the sea lapping at the stone foundations and the wooden piles softly creaking, whispering that Venice was sinking by increments invisible to the human eye, though not invisible perhaps to the seagulls whose cries resounded with sorrow as they surveyed the lagoon from above. It was a rustic, old-world part of the lagoon with few landmarks—a notable church or two, and the great painter Tintoretto’s simple home, things that attracted a few visitors, but not the jostling crowds. Its stillness, the silence, the weeds, the cries of the gulls, all gave Cannaregio an air of abandonment and neglect uncommon to the rest of Venice, and for this I was drawn to it. For there, my thoughts had space to roam and my eyes could observe the beauty of Venice when she was neither selling herself, nor performing for the crowds, but simply going about the everyday undertakings of life in a quiet, unselfconscious way.
I had first wandered into Cannaregio one day in late September. It had been a day of aimless wandering, choosing this bridge then that, not knowing where I was going, just feeling my way along the back streets of Venice trying to become familiar with my new home. Alberto was on the mainland, working long hours as usual, and I filled my days exploring Venice, with camera and notebook as companions, and map as my guide. I was so often lost, that my map was soft with use, the corners rounded and the creases at the folds beginning to tear. I had been living in Venice for over a month at the time, and the city was still a mystery to me, a labyrinth of narrow streets that sometimes ended abruptly at the edge of a canal or in a small courtyard with no exit. Streets so narrow that one of two people would have to turn sideways to let the other pass, and on some, which were long, dark tunnels through buildings built over them, only one body could enter at a time in order to avoid an impasse. On the narrower calles, umbrellas had to be closed—no matter the downpour—to avoid becoming lodged between the walls. Making my way through this maze, I found myself in Cannaregio that day, and roamed the area until the fiery evening sun filled the canals with a shimmering golden light and then slowly found my way back home in the violet haze of nightfall.
In winter, it was not the golden light of sun that filled the canals of Venice, but a grey shroud of fog. Fog so thick I could not see the boats in the canals, but could only hear the boatmen shouting, “Oye! Oye!” to warn others of their approach. The fog drifted over the lagoon, in swirling tentacles, sometimes wispy and thin, circling the seagulls perched on the wooden piles or the cats in the campi, and sometimes it came in thick, serpent-like strands crawling over the boats, slipping under the bridges, twisting around me on the streets so I couldn’t see, enveloping all of Piazza San Marco to detain the shadowy silhouetted figures crisscrossing the open space there as it restlessly wandered in an endless search for something to hold onto. I too was searching for something to hold onto. I was searching for knowledge and adventure, for romance—love, and perhaps most of all, to validate myself. I had come a long way from home to live in this extraordinary place of astounding beauty with a man I hardly knew. I was hoping to find my art…my passion, my heart…but was feeling adrift at sea and searching for something to anchor me.
Alberto and I first met on the train from Rome to Florence two years earlier and hit it off immediately. We met again the summer after that, and the following year, when I finished a summer of study in Rome, he asked me to come and live with him to see if we might make a go of it. By February, my love for Alberto had grown more than I had imagined. It had grown quietly, without that falling-in-love rush of adrenaline and hormones that had dominated my experience of love to date. Love had surprised me this time, had approached me in a different guise, masked, so that I barely recognized it until it was standing right in front of me.
Alberto and I were from different worlds though, and the extent to which this affected our relationship surprised me as much as the depth of feeling I had for him. In our six months together, along with the wonderful adventures, tender moments, and all I was learning from Alberto—not just about Venice as he had promised, but about art and history, and many other things, we argued more and more frequently over trivial issues.
These trivialities—the fact that he didn’t like the smell of garlic, and didn’t want me to cook with it—which I found most annoying, especially in an Italian, or that I ordered my espresso served with my dessert not after, which he found barbaric—crassly American, because espresso, as all Italians knew, was meant to be consumed alone, at the end of the meal, in order to cleanse the palate. This sort of thing, from a list of similarly trivial things, would crop up unpredictably and lead to arguments that would spoil a day, a perfect outing, or a romantic evening all too frequently of late, creating a fissure, a slowly widening gap, between us.
It was obvious that what we were arguing about was never the real problem—arguing over garlic or espresso just masked the tenuous insecurities neither of us understood or wanted to acknowledge. In calmer moments, we often talked about whether I could live in Venice permanently, and of not waiting for his three year Italian divorce to come through in order to start having children, and of how we might bridge our differences. As February embraced the lagoon in its cold, wet arms, Alberto’s father’s health, which had not been good for some time, began to seriously decline. With this, Alberto and I wordlessly agreed to set aside our own problems and devote our full attention to helping care for Beppe.
That morning, I had hoped to have coffee with Alberto before he left for work because we hardly saw each other anymore, but as I awoke, I heard the apartment door close and his footsteps skipping down the stone steps to the foyer. Alberto was light on his feet–light and fast. Sometimes I could hardly keep up with him when we walked through Venice together. He never took the elevator because he was claustrophobic, but he could make it down four flights of stairs even faster without it. I wanted to get to the hospital early that day to offer Alberto’s mother Marta a break. I dressed quickly and left, deciding to stop for a cappuccino at the pastry shop near the Calle Maria and Jesú en route to the hospital. Alberto and his parents had lived on that narrow street for many years in a large second floor apartment, and he had returned to live there after separating from his British wife two years earlier. His parents moved into a smaller, newer, more manageable apartment across the Grand Canal. The first two months after coming to Venice, I had lived with Alberto there on Calle Maria and Jesú. The sun never filtered down that far on such a narrow street, so when Alberto found us a beautiful, fourth floor apartment with a view and plenty of sunshine, on a canal in the sestiere of Dorsoduro, I was very happy.
As I approached the old neighborhood, I heard someone walking ahead of me. I heard the click, click, click of their heels on the cold stone of the calle, but could not see a soul through the fog. I was blind, lost in a misty nether world, and to compensate for this lack of vision, my other senses became more attuned. I could smell the laundry in the air and hear it dripping, but it hung somewhere above the narrow street, somewhere high above, lost on a line that disappeared into the fog. Drip, click click, drip. Then I heard Giovanni, the old man who wandered the streets of the old neighborhood blowing on a leaf to make an odd sort of music—odd to me at least. But perhaps not to the Venetians, for it did sound, strangely enough, like some traditional Italian music I’d heard once at the Italian Academy in New York. There the instrument had been made out of a sheep gut, which when inflated with air, served as a bagpipe. Giovanni played for a bit, then stopped and called up to the windows for alms. The heavy wooden shutters creaked open and the women, in their distinct Venetian dialect—with that ever present dzhe sound, more Austrian in timbre than Italian, called out, “Giovanni, dove xei? Sta bello muxica. Vegni qui! Over here. Do lira. Two lira. Catch Giovanni!”
I heard the coins clink onto the street, but couldn’t see a thing through the fog. As I stood still in the street a moment, listening for Giovanni’s whereabouts, a shadowy figure brushed past me, startling me, and quickly disappeared into the swirling fog ahead. During the first week, I had found the fog, along with such nebulous encounters, mysterious, beautiful, and romantic. But the romance had been short lived, and I now longed to escape the fog and its grayness and see sun and sky again.
Alberto had warned me that Venice could be difficult in winter when the chill from the icy seawater seeped into the city’s foundations and stone paved streets.
“Ah, but you don’t know winters in New York,” I said, laughing lightly. “The cold of Venice certainly couldn’t be worse than that of a New York City winter.”
He told me heavy fog covered the city sometimes for months without lifting and many Venetians fled the lagoon during those months to escape it. He said Venice felt somewhat abandoned then, it became shuttered and empty, and some people even found it a bit depressing. He was teasing me, surely. I laughed again, unable to imagine that a place of such profound beauty could ever be depressing. But I had been lacking imagination….
I stomped my numbed feet as I walked to bring the circulation back. The lovely leather soled Italian shoes that I’d bought on sale in Rome were not good for walking in Venice. For winter in Venice, one needed thick rubber soled shoes to provide insulation from the cold stone streets. The damp cold of Venice penetrated the very marrow of my bones like nothing I had known. One had to walk everywhere in Venice. Public transportation was available only by boat—and the boats offered little refuge from the cold. I crossed the large bridge to the train station at Piazzale Roma and turned down the Lista de Spagna, which took me past the ancient palazzo of the casino where Wagner had breathed his “ultimo spiro” and died, and on through the large old iron gates of the Ghetto. Alberto once informed me that the word ghetto was Venetian, from ghèto, meaning foundry, and in Venice, around the 1500s, it became the name for the neighborhood of the foundry and was where the Jews lived. I passed through the old ghetto, then came to the new ghetto, all the while thinking about Jewish history in Venice, The Merchant of Venice, and the line, “All that glisters is not gold,” and this all led me to marvel at how old Venice was as I pushed onward to the quieter streets of Canareggio near the hospital.
I would have liked to talk to someone about my new life in Venice and how it felt to live in a world so different from anything I had ever know, but the people I dealt with every day in the market and shops never thought to ask me where I came from or what I was doing in their city. They had no curiosity about me. To the Venetians, I was just another American tourist in town—and most likely, they didn’t even know I was American. I was just another tourist. Their lives were saturated with foreigners and perhaps in defense, or ingrained in them from years of foreign invasion, the Venetians preferred to keep to themselves. They were friendly as merchants, but to go beyond that, to penetrate into the inner circles of friendship, seemed a difficult feat. I imagined that eventually I would come to feel at home there, but Venice had not embraced me as Rome had when I studied there, nor was it as friendly or welcoming as had been other cities in the world where I had lived.
Even the language formed a barrier. On my previous visits to Venice I hadn’t noticed it, but I had only spoken then with people working in the shops or hotels, or with Alberto, who spoke in Italian or English with me. Now I realized that among themselves, the Venetians spoke Venetian dialect, which I did not understand. I was a forestiera, as Alberto’s elderly aunt Fidus and most of the older Venetians called foreigners—a stranger. When we visited Beppe and Marta—Alberto’s parents, Alberto either had to translate, or they had to remember to speak in Italian for me. His mother would clasp her hands in nervous embarrassment each time Alberto impatiently admonished her for slipping into Venetian again, and his father became even more quiet than usual. It occurred to me one evening as we struggled with language once again that in order for us to communicate, we all had to speak in a language that was not our own.
The fog had frozen in my hair forming tiny ice crystals and I was numb with cold by the time I arrived at the tall double doors that opened to the inner courtyard of the hospital. The ancient building had been an abbey at one time. The cavernous stone entrance hall had thirty-foot arches with the ceiling curving even higher. It was cold and damp in there, and smelled of the sea. In fact, a canal from the sea extended inside the grand hall in the back and that was where the ambulance boats arrived. Beppe had arrived there by ambulance, and had been taken to the newer wing, built in the 1960s—a bleak, no frills, institutional looking building that was so lacking in any beauty or inspiration that it didn’t seem to belong in Venice. It offered no televisions, radios, telephones, or dividing curtains—except when death was imminent—in the patient’s rooms. It was a painfully stark wing.
When I arrived in Beppe’s room, his eyes were closed. Marta was looking out the window, her back to the door. She was a tiny woman, well under five feet tall, with legs only as thick as my arms. She wore high heels in order to appear taller, black platform shoes with tall thick heels that looked as if they had been fashionable in the forties. She was seventy-five, and wore dresses with small flower prints in summer, and neatly tailored woven wool suits with fitted jackets over skirts flared just below the knee in winter, and she marched briskly up and down the steps of the many bridges in Venice and she walked with a purposeful stride. She was pretty, but lately she looked worn and her coarse grey hair stood up in wisps on the top of her head. She had begun to look pale and thin, as if mirroring Beppe’s decline. I approached the window, which looked out towards the cemetery island of San Michele where the Venetians are buried, but the fog lay over the sea and hid the island from view.
“Ciao, Marta,” I said. She hadn’t heard me enter and spun around with a start. I kissed her on one cheek then the other, and noticed she had been crying only as I pulled back to look her in the eye. “Marta? Cosa successo?”
She pulled out a small, embroidered handkerchief from the sleeve of her sweater and wiped the tears from her eyes. “Why aren’t the doctors doing anything for Beppe?” She searched my eyes questioningly. “I thought they would make him better when he came here, but he only gets weaker every day. He doesn’t eat. He can’t even speak. You saw what happened…and now look at his arm.” She pointed to the grapefruit-sized swelling on his forearm. “And he’s in terrible pain. Alberto and Stefano tell me it’s a calcium problem, rheumatism in his bones…but look at him!”
She leaned closer to me and asked in a lowered voice, as if sensing a conspiracy, “Does Alberto talk to you about this? What does he tell you is wrong with Beppe?” She squinted intently into my eyes for some sign. “Has he said anything different to you?”
“He tells me the same thing he tells you, Marta,” I replied. She had asked me this once before. I folded my coat and hung it over the back of the chair, and drawing in a deep breath, went to the window. “This fog reminds me of being on a plane as it flies into heavy clouds and you can’t see anything anymore. It’s blinding.”
It was not up to me to tell her what was wrong with Beppe if her sons had decided against it, but I hated lying to her and believed she should know the truth. I sighed and turned away from the window. Marta had wiped her eyes dry and her expression was not quite calm, but resigned. Signore Romeo, the engineer who shared the room with Beppe, was not in his bed, and wanting to distract Marta from further discussion of Beppe, I asked, “What happened to Signore Romeo? Have you seen him today?”
“His wife is visiting. She took him down the hall. He made a terrible fuss. Roaring like a lion, again. Roaring as if he feared she were going to kill him.”
I laughed. I didn’t like the engineer’s wife. She was much younger than he was, somewhat plump, and she wore way too much makeup and jewelry. She would bustle into the room with her jewels clanking and her long fur coat stirring up the dust, wearing enough perfume to make the whole building smell better, and talk to her husband with cold condescension in her voice. “Maybe he’s onto something…maybe she does want to kill him,” I said, raising my eyebrows up and down to make Marta smile. We laughed with shared understanding of the woman in discussion.
“I feel sorry for him whenever she appears,” I added.
“She never says a word to me,” Marta said. “I’ve tried to be pleasant with her, but she’s not at all interested in being friendly.” Marta shrugged raising her palms skyward.
Marta didn’t really care. She had Beppe to worry about. She wanted to prove to him that she hadn’t abandoned him. She needed to make him see that she hadn’t betrayed him as he had accused her of doing the day they came to load him into the ambulance boat and bring him to this place. She had promised to take him home as soon as he got his strength back—just a short while, she had promised. She continued telling him that, in spite of all odds, because her sons encouraged this fantasy.
“I’ll stay with Beppe awhile, Marta. He’s sleeping now. Why don’t you take a break?” I suggested. “You need to go to the market don’t you? Alberto told me you have no food in the house.”
She felt guilty to leave Beppe. She would have stayed with him without ever taking a break if not pushed to leave. But it was market day and I knew she loved going to market on Thursdays when she would meet many old friends and enjoy the distraction of catching up on the gossip in the sestiere where she lived. She finally agreed to go. She kissed Beppe on the forehead and waved to me with a trace of a smile, but her eyes were sad.
Shortly after Beppe had been admitted to Fatebenefratelli, his upper gum became painful and began to swell. The doctors removed his false teeth. The sore on his gums then began to grow and it grew out of his mouth, a thick raw sore, a swollen, protruding wound that was so large it covered his mouth. He could no longer eat or speak. In order for him to drink, a bulb syringe with a thin tube attached to it was filled with water and then a place had to be located under his tumor where the tube could slide into his mouth. Marta could not bear to do it. She was afraid of hurting him, of putting even that soft, tiny, rubber tube, near that enormous open wound. So, I did it. I was afraid also, but he would nod his head to say he was thirsty and someone had to give him water. The nurses were understaffed and most of Beppe’s care was left to the family.
Beppe’s eyes were closed much of the time these days and he always looked as if he were in pain. In the room next door was a man who screamed and swore and moaned all day long with the rhythm of someone who had gone mad. The only time he stopped was when he fell asleep or was taken away for some reason—which was not often enough. Now Signore Romeo had taken up his howling again. I felt deeply sympathetic to Beppe’s plight—imprisoned in such an awful place—the place he had begged not to be sent to, unable to even speak, unable to ask for what he needed.
I was looking out the window when Signore Romeo was wheeled back into the room by an orderly. The first time I came to the hospital alone to visit Beppe, I brought Beppe some Coca Cola, but found him sleeping. I was thirsty, and as I poured a glass of coke for myself, I asked Signore Romeo, who had been intently studying my every move, if he would like some coke as well. He nodded, yes. As I came to his bedside, hand outstretched with the glass, he let out a loud, unearthly howl, which so startled me, that I jumped back splashing the coke all over myself. Attempting to feign composure, I wiped off my arm, and took another step back. Eyeing him squarely, I said, “So, that means you don’t want it?”
He stared at me and I saw a trace of amusement in his eyes as if he was pleased to have startled me so. A half smile came over his face and looking like a big walrus with his thick head of gray hair and handlebar moustache, he reached out for the glass I tightly clenched in my hand. I cautiously stepped closer, our eyes locked like two animals sizing each other up. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of scaring me like that again, so I approached with utmost caution. But he gently took the glass from me without further incident.
He still howled at the nurses, and he howled particularly loudly and fiercely whenever his wife came to see him, but he never howled at me again after that day. Why Signore Romeo howled, no one knew. But we began to have rather lucid conversations. I would tell him about life in New York, and sometimes show him photos. He showed me pictures of his grandchildren. I figured he was nice to me because he realized how sick Beppe was, or maybe because I spoke to him with respect. I related to him as a grown man and expected him to act like one. I grew fond of him and we helped each other pass the time during those long days. He was rather sensitive and refined, and I imagined he came from a good Venetian family. I often put my seat between the two beds so I could talk to him as I watched over Beppe.
I was just putting my chair between the beds, when his wife stormed back into the room. I stood up and left my chair by the bed for her. I slid the chair at the foot of Signore Romeo’s bed over to the foot of Beppe’s bed and buried my nose in my newspaper, a copy of Venice’s Il Gazettino that I’d bought on my way over.
“I’m throwing away all your letters and papers,” Signore Romeo’s wife told him as she plopped herself into the chair. He howled his loud, eerie howl and I looked up. She had brought him ice cream and was lifting the spoon to his mouth. “We’re going to auction off the furniture, your desk, and all your things in the study,” she said. He howled again. Furtively glancing at them over the top of my newspaper, I noted the look of mortification on his face.
“No, no, no!” he shouted, his face red with anger. He let out a howl as he dodged the spoon filled with ice cream that she held to his lips. “Not my desk!” She pushed the spoon into his mouth. He swallowed and then begged her not to auction his belongings. She seemed to take particular delight in the fact that he was helpless to stop her.
“Don’t be such a bad, bad, boy,” she admonished. She always talked to him as if he were a child and in her presence he became childlike. “I must take care of these things. You know you can’t ever come home again, so what difference does it make?”
Beppe opened his eyes, looked over at them, and then at me. I widened my eyes and made a face. The howling must have awakened him. I stood up to offer Beppe some water. I wiped the sweat from his brow and told him Marta had gone to market. Signore Romeo fell asleep soon after his wife departed, exhausted from all the commotion and his howling. His wife had stirred him up good that morning. Beppe too, closed his eyes again and I returned to my seat and Il Gazzetino.
That evening when Alberto came home, I told him about Marta’s questioning me at the hospital. “How can you keep lying to your mother and father at this point? Maybe five years ago you were being kind, but now, let them prepare. Your mother knows something isn’t right. She’s questioning what you tell her.”
“Believe me,” he said dismissively, “Marta couldn’t deal with the truth.
“But she’s asking for the truth now and has a right to it. Beppe’s her husband, Alberto. They both need to know now so they can prepare.”
“You don’t understand,” Alberto said, removing his glasses to rub his hand over his eyes. “My parents are not educated people.”
“Not educated?” I blinked. “What does that have to do with it? The only reason you’re educated is because your dad slaved seven days a week in his café, and your mom spent all those years working in the cigar factory—to give you a better life, an education. And now you’re so educated, you think you have the right to decide what they should know about their own lives. Alberto, your mother needs to know the truth about what’s going on. She’s asking me what I know. I hate lying to her….I just hate it.”
We argued in circles, but it was of no use. It was a conspiracy. Alberto, Stefano, and Beppe’s doctor—who was Alberto’s best friend, all agreed that Beppe and Marta should not be told Beppe was dying of bone cancer.
During the days as I sat with Beppe, I often wondered what he thought, lying there listening to me fumble with the language, awkwardly trying to make conversation with him. Maybe he wanted silence. Maybe he felt ill at ease with me there because I was so recently a part of the family. Maybe he didn’t care when I told him the news, or reported how his plants on the terrace were doing because he knew he would never see them again. Still, I went to him, wiped his brow, brought him things to read, and found things to talk to him about.
I had to search for things to tell Beppe because my life had become very small. I went to the market, walked to the hospital, took a run—weather permitting, made dinner in the evening, and usually ate alone because Alberto went to the hospital straight from work. He would shave his father’s face and sit with him until ten or eleven every night. So I talked to Beppe about the things I saw on my way to visit him. Carnival had begun and I described things like the warm, sweet smell in the air of freshly made fritelle, a pastry only made during carnival. I told him about the costumes I’d seen near the market at Rialto and as I walked past the Scalzi bridge by the train station. People dressed as the Doges of the Venetian Empire, or as aristocratic lords and ladies from the sixteenth century with elaborate costumes of fine lace, satin, silk, and gold, and with the backdrop of the old Venetian palazzos, one was transported back in time and the whole city became a grand stage for a seventeenth century drama.
Along the Strada Nuova, the main road I took to the hospital before turning off to the smaller streets, I saw kings, princes, Pantalon, Harlequin, Pulcinella on stilts, and modern costumes of blinking lights, and elaborate silk butterflies. I saw finely painted porcelain masks, and masks from all the different regions of Italy, including the strange and ugly Bauta—the traditional mask of Venice, with its smooth, pointed apron that eerily extended out from under the nose. I didn’t like it at all. As it allowed its wearers to eat or drink masked, it had been quite popular in the old days when masks were worn for many occassions. One could also hide a tumor or deformity of the mouth beneath the Bauta, I mused. And then there was the mask of the Medico della Peste…the Doctor of the Plague with its long, bird-like beak, which was not originally a theatrical mask, but one worn by doctors during the plagues. They stuffed the nose of the masque with aromatic grasses or medicinal herbs and wore glasses—now drawn on the mask—to protect themselves from the vapors of deadly illnesses as they tended to the sick and dying.
Frolicking in the streets were always plenty of nuns, priests, popes, and cardinals, who the Italians so loved to impersonate. They lifted their habits to show a garter, or revealed red underwear beneath priestly robes, and were always up to some such impious escapades. In the evenings, when the streets of Venice overflowed with carnival merriment, the figure of the Grim Reaper was often present, stalking among the merry revelers, serving as a reminder that even during festive times, death was present, hovering ever near. I never mentioned the Reaper though when telling Beppe of the costumes I’d seen.
Stella, the wife of Stefano, Alberto’s brother, would come in from their home on the Lido some days. We would talk a bit, then stare at the floor for long periods. When she spoke, she said the same things over and over. “Death is near,” she’d say. “His face is grey. He doesn’t look well. I smell blood, that foul smell from his mouth. It’s frightening what has happened to his mouth,” she’d say. “It’s so horrible, I can’t even look at him anymore.”
She would not go anywhere near Beppe, but sat by the wall at the foot of his bed. She discouraged her three college-age daughters, his only grandchildren, from coming to visit. “It is too awful for them to have to see him like this,” she said. “The last time I left here I felt I had that odor from his mouth clinging to me. On the boat back to the Lido, I went to the outside deck for air, and smoked several cigarettes, but still couldn’t get rid of that smell.”
His mouth was the most terrible thing to look at, but I wished Stella would not talk about it at the foot of Beppe’s bed. His eyes were closed, but I didn’t believe he was always sleeping. I too would find that odor clinging to me when I left the hospital and wanted to be rid of it. It was like carrying the scent of death on you. I felt relieved when Stella left, though I knew she meant well, and ironically, possibly made the trips in now and then just to keep me company.
The way Beppe was left to suffer seemed archaic. I didn’t think we would handle it in such a way in the States. An exposed tumor like his—it was just too awful. Alberto told me nothing could be done; the doctors said Beppe was too weak to operate on or treat with chemotherapy. Besides, he would have to go to the mainland for such treatment and both he and Marta wanted to stay in Venice. Marta wouldn’t be able to visit Beppe regularly on the mainland. She was too old for all that back and forth travel. It would only create more hardship for the two of them.
This only heightened my feeling that Venice was an isolated island cut off from the rest of the world in spite of her international fame and hordes of fans and visitors. In many ways, Venice was like a delicate, blown glass ornament floating out at sea, fragile, steeped in ancient customs and traditions, and as old, worn, and removed from the contemporary world as she appeared to be.
One afternoon, hearing the rhythm of sleep in Beppe’s breathing, I left the room and went downstairs for air. In the open courtyard of the hospital stood an old, abandoned chapel covered with dead vines. An abandoned looking, narrow construction stood to one side of the yard and the large grassy area that ran down to the seawall was overgrown and unused. I took a deep breath of the cold air. The seagulls could be heard crying out in the lagoon.
An old man stood nearby smoking a cigarette. “Proprio un campo dei sospiri,” he said, leaning against a column and gazing out over the courtyard.
A field of sighs, he had called it. I nodded and sighed. This was where the visitors came to sigh and smoke and stare out across the courtyard to the sea, and to sigh again upon noticing that just across the water, was the cemetery island of San Michele patiently waiting to receive those placed in the new wing of Fatebenfratelli.
I sat in a worn wooden chair there and wrote in my journal until my fingers were too frozen to go on. It was nearly sunset when I returned inside. Signore Romeo was gone as were all his belongings, and the nurses were making up his bed as if for someone new to move in. I asked where he’d been moved to and the nurse told me he had suffered a sudden heart attack…and had died. I was stunned. Signore Romeo who seemed so well compared to Beppe? Gone? Vanished forever…just like that? Not even a chance to say goodbye to him. I whispered goodbye to Beppe whose eyes were closed. I wondered what he had seen of this as I rushed to leave the room.
I stopped on a bridge and leaned on the railing taking deep breaths. I was so sad. Shivering in the icy air, an unexpected wave of homesickness came over me, and with it, a sudden need to see something of beauty, to look at art in order to mend my soul. I walked to the nearby church of Madonna dell’Orto. Inside, I found works by Tintoretto and Bellini. Tintoretto’s paintings, which I prided myself in being able to recognize now along with several other painters from the Veneto, hung above the altar. Art soothed the ache and sadness in me and elevated my soul. The paintings, architecture, the smell of incense, smoke, and sea created a sanctuary-like atmosphere where I was able remove myself briefly from the cares of the world. Before leaving the church, I lit a candle by the altar for Beppe, and headed home.
Alberto had made plans much earlier for us to see a play by Goldoni that night for carnival at the Teatro Goldoni. I looked forward to the play, and to forgetting the sorrow of the day, but most of all, to having Alberto’s company for the evening. He had gotten us box seats and we had a clear view of both stage and audience from the first tier. The people in the audience wore costumes, and masks of all sorts—in particular, the small, round, black moretta, attached to the end of a thin stick, which is held up to the face when looking around. The effect of both actors and audience in disguise and playing roles, in a theater itself dressed up in a whirl of gold and red, its balconies like golden ruffles lit with delicate lamps—was magical. I felt as if I were in a painting by Pietro Longhi. The play was a farce, in rhyme, and in Venetian dialect. I was pleased that I could understand much of it.
That evening, I too wore a mask. On a whim, I decided to partake in the carnival festivities in an effort to cheer myself and surprise Alberto. I painted my face white, lined my eyes with black pencil, and colored my lips red. I put on the black tricorn hat, with a short veil of fine black lace that Alberto had bought for me and was pleased with how beautifully my disguise turned out. But as the evening wore on, my mask dried uncomfortably tight and hard in the warm theater air, and I felt that if I smiled my face would crack.
One morning, a week later, the tumor on Beppe’s mouth began to hemorrhage while Marta was at his side. When I arrived, she was hysterically sobbing, and angry. She told me that when she saw Beppe bleeding, she had cried out, “What is happening to my poor husband? What is wrong with him?”
One of the nurses had turned to her and said, “You mean you don’t know what’s wrong with your husband?'”
“I said yes, then no, and felt so stupid that I didn’t know,” she told me, her face flushed red. “Embarrassed, I finally said well, what does he have?” The nurse told her he had the brutto male, the ugly, or evil sickness, as they called cancer in Venice, and she explained that the growth on his mouth was a tumor. “I felt like such a fool,” Marta said, her eyes swollen and brimming with tears. “Everyone knew but me. How could my sons have done this to me? I never, ever, imagined they would lie to me like this. Not about something so important….not about this.”
She looked small and broken—like a tiny bird that has flown into a closed window, she was hurt—stunned by the unexpected blow. It looked as if her sorrow were too devastating, too heavy a weight for her tiny frame to bear. That evening, everyone gathered at her house for dinner. I was on the balcony, watering Beppe’s plants when Stella came outside for a cigarette.
“Marta is not handling this well,” Stella said staring at Marta and her sister Fidus drinking wine in the living room through the balcony’s sliding glass door.
“They should have told her Beppe had cancer months ago,” I said, wearily. “It would have been much better had they both known.”
“Marta is never content,” Stella abruptly replied. “It never would have been the right time to tell her.” She drew in heavily on her cigarette, arms crossed in front of her. “She’s always contrary. Just like she was with Beppe—never satisfied, always complaining about him and idealizing her love for her first husband, Stefano’s father, who died during the war—young enough still to be idealized, and only now, now she cries that she loves Beppe so much. Anyway, I intend to find out which nurse told Marta the truth about Beppe’s cancer and have her denounced.”
I picked the dead leaves off Beppe’s geranium plant without comment. I had no allies here. I hadn’t expected Stella’s reaction—her anger. I didn’t see Marta as she did…but I was a forestiera, with only an outsider’s understanding of the complex dynamics of this family. As Stella lit another cigarette, I excused myself to get a glass of wine. Marta had downed several glasses of wine already and was refusing to eat. She stood, announcing she had no appetite at all, and proceeded to the bathroom, where she slipped, and smacked her head on the bidet as she fell. She was carried out to the living room couch with great fuss as an enormous lump swelled out of her forehead. Her tiny older sister Fidus, somewhat tipsy herself at that point, appeared wielding a huge butcher knife, marched over to Marta, and promptly pushed the lump back into Marta’s head with the flat side of the blade. She swabbed Marta’s forehead with vinegar because they had no ice, and Marta was put to bed.
When I came to say goodnight to Marta, she looked haggard. Her eye was already quite swollen and purple and looked as if someone had punched her. She patted the bed, implying I should sit for a moment.
“Do you love Alberto?” Her eyes were kind and hopeful.
“Yes,” I answered, surprised by her bluntness, which I assumed was encouraged by the wine she had consumed—in vino veritas.
“Are you happy in Venice? Do you think you will stay?” Her words slurred slightly.
My heart went out to her. I said yes, I thought I would stay, more to comfort her than anything, because I wasn’t sure yet. I loved Alberto, but we needed time to see….
“If it is a rose it will bloom,” she said, as if she understood. I wondered if someone had once said that to her about her marriage to Beppe after Stefano’s father had been killed during the war. I wondered if that marriage had been a rose for her and if it had bloomed without her even realizing it until now—if things really were as Stella saw them. I kissed Marta goodnight feeling such tenderness towards her. She was a remarkable woman, tiny, tough, and straightforward.
Friday night, Alberto slept at the hospital, in a chair across from his father’s bed. For weeks he had spent almost every free moment at the hospital with his father. Beppe was looking more skeletal every day. Saturday afternoon, Alberto offered to go with me to the Piazza San Marco to watch some of the carnival festivities. He didn’t like carnival, the crowds flooding the city, or the disruption of daily life. Most Venetians felt the same, unless they had a business that depended on carnival for winter business. But Alberto wanted to please me, to offer me a break from the gloom of the hospital visits. I told him what I most needed was to get out of Venice for a day. I wanted to go up into the Dolomite Mountains, high above the fog and clouds. I wanted to see the sun. We hadn’t escaped from the city for well over a month. I desired to see sunlight more than anything. We departed for the mountains, and in the evening on our return, we drove to the town of Conegliano where we had a favorite trattoria, a place we had dined the first summer we met and had frequented in good spirits ever since. But that evening, we ate in a weary silence, unusual for us, and finished a bottle of wine much too quickly.
Alberto went to call his mother to see how things were. Unable to find her, he called his brother’s house. Stella told him Stefano had gone to the hospital with Marta because they had been told Beppe might die any moment. We left the restaurant immediately and Alberto drove so fast down the narrow mountain roads that I braced my hands on the dashboard fearing an accident much of the way. It was nearly eleven when we arrived at the Piazzale Roma. It was the only place to leave a car in Venice, and due to carnival, the one garage there was filled and all the outdoor spaces taken. We left the car parked illegally and ran. Alberto told me I didn’t have to go with him since it was so late. I wanted to go though and said that if Marta was still at the hospital I could walk her home. But most of all, I wanted to see Beppe.
When we arrived, Marta and Stefano were already gone. The nurses had put up a curtain separating Beppe from the others in the room. The tumor appeared larger than ever before and he seemed to have shrunken around it. He looked skeletal; his grey hair, unwashed for so long, was brushed back from his forehead. He appeared so fragile. His breathing had a gurgling sound as if there were water in his lungs. I felt tenderness for him and wanted to touch him, to kiss his forehead, to ask if he wanted water, to say ciao Beppe and brush my hand on his hair—all the things I had done day after day, but he was asleep now. I stared at him as if waiting for something. Alberto also stood and stared. I felt a sort of amazement as if we were watching death creeping up and overtaking him. How strange it had been to watch this slow, day by day, transformation to death. Tears came to my eyes. Beppe had suffered greatly and I wanted an explanation for it, but knew there was none. I also knew I would never see him alive again.
Alberto urged me to leave because it was after midnight, and he said I might be needed in the morning so I should get some rest. He walked me down through the courtyard to the wide double doors that opened onto the street.
“Be careful, especially at Scalzi Bridge,” he warned. “All those foreigners there for carnival, thieves, and people getting drunk. Be careful.”
“I’ll be fine. But you too. Get home safely.” He hugged me and kissed me goodnight.
“You’ll be okay alone?” I asked. He brushed the hair from my eyes and nodded, then disappeared into the dimly light inner hall of the old abbey. The attendant pulled the tall, heavy old wooden doors closed behind him. I was not afraid to be out at night, but the wine had gone to my head and the stress of rushing down from the mountains and Beppe’s condition had left me upset and anxious. As I walked the deserted back streets I felt cautious. I was thirsty from our run to the hospital. I stopped on the way to Scalzi Bridge for a soda, drank it in a single gulp, and left the cafe. I then became aware of a man walking behind me as if alerted by instinct. I glanced sideways, trying to get a look at him, but fog wafted through the street and I could only see that he was wearing a wide black coat. At times he walked nearly parallel to me and his pace remained the same as mine. He turned as I turned to cross Scalzi bridge and he turned to the right as I did at the bottom. This was not unusual, it was a main traffic route, and yet, I felt alarmed. I had never felt danger in the streets of Venice before, but I had never been out so late alone either. But it was carnival now and the forestieri had come to Venice in droves. Illusion filled the air. Truths were disguised by all sorts of masks. As I approached the next bridge, I timed my pace so the man made his direction clear first, and as he started up the next bridge, I veered away and made a left turn. A backward glance told me he faltered, hesitated when I departed from the main path, so I quickly continued down the dark calle I had chosen, but rounding a bend in the street, I saw that it was deserted and I felt uncomfortable for it was out my way as it was. A figure appeared, a carnival reveler dressed as death. He stopped and his hooded black cape swung open as he reached to light a lantern he carried hanging from the end of a long pole. The white bones of a skeleton costume beneath his cape caught my eye. I shivered and smelled the odor of death on me. I turned quickly around and headed back to the main bridge. The man who had roused my fears was still there lingering by the bottom step to the bridge. He had paused in front of a shop window there. He started walking again as I approached. I slowed to stay behind him. But he slowed down as well, so much so that unless I stopped, I’d catch up to him again.
Soon I would pass the Piazzale Roma where we had left our car and after that my pathway home through all the narrow residential streets of Dorsoduro was utterly deserted at night. I spotted some people ahead on the black wooden bridge that crossed to the Piazzale Roma and raced ahead of the man. I ran up the bridge, hoping to give the impression that I was not running out of fear, but merely in a hurry. I slipped on the wood—wet from the fog, but recovered quickly and regained my pace. To my surprise, I heard footsteps running up fast behind me—chasing after me. The man called something out to me. I must have been mistaken—not to me…but his footsteps pounded just behind me, keeping pace with me. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I didn’t look back. I didn’t know anyone in Venice. I hadn’t dropped anything. No explanation. His footsteps pounded behind me. I panicked. I took off running as if my very life depended on it. I turned off the main street along the canal to the back streets hoping to lose him. I was in my neighborhood now and knew all the little streets and different ways to go. I ran hoping the fog would cover me, obscure me just long enough so that I could slip through the narrow passageway that led through a small tunnel then back out to the main street further ahead. I tried to silence my breathing and run without making a sound.
Halfway down the tunnel I stopped to listen for footsteps. I heard nothing but my own heart wildly beating. I continued to the tunnel’s end and peered out onto the main street by the canal. It was deserted except for a few people on the wooden bridge, and among them, the carnival reveler dressed as death. He was looking over the canal, holding his lantern, lit now, over the water. I turned and ran home without stopping.
The elevator was waiting in the entrance foyer. I ran inside it and pushed the button three times before the door closed and the small cage ascended. I entered the apartment, locked the door behind me, and leaned against it to catch my breath. The wind made the tall green wooden shutters on the windows creak. I walked from room to room turning on the switches that lit the chandeliers overhead as if I could dispel the fear that still followed me with light. The ticking of the clock in the kitchen echoed throughout the apartment. I felt shaken and vulnerable. I sat in a chair to wait for Alberto’s return and must have dozed off within minutes. I dreamt that Beppe was being carried from the hospital in a procession. Long black boats like hearses sailed with his body to the island of San Michele. I searched for Alberto in the fog and found him standing on the other side of a wide canal, but I didn’t know how to get across it—I didn’t know how to reach him. Upset, I called to him, but he couldn’t hear me.
I awoke with a start as if startled by a noise, but encountered only an eerie silence. Even the shutters had ceased to groan. The feeling of sorrow and loss from my dream clung to me as if it had been real. It was three o’clock in the morning. The ring of the telephone startled me and I jumped up to answer it.
There was a pause on the other end of the phone, and I heard a quick intake of breathe. He cleared his throat and I knew.
The next day I went with Alberto to the hospital to collect his father’s belongings. His hospital room was empty and we were told we would find Beppe’s body and his belongings in the narrow building along the seawall downstairs. We made our way across the overgrown grass in the “field of sighs” and found Beppe in a small room, empty except for a cement slab in the center, upon which his body, covered by a white sheet, rested. The weathered wooden door to the room had not been closed and no one was there to see who came and went. No one was there to guard Beppe’s body and this upset me. I looked from one room to the other in this narrow cement building and found each one empty. Beppe was dead, free of pain at last, so what did it matter that his body had been left all alone out there with only the seagulls crying overhead and the sea breeze rustling the dead vines clinging to the building? I pulled the sheet back and Beppe’s corpse, so frail and thin, seemed vulnerable and abandoned, and to watch Alberto gather his father’s belongings from this abandoned post deeply touched me. Tears filled my eyes and I began to sob. Alberto set his father’s clothes down and put his arms around me. We stood in an embrace, our bodies shaking as we sobbed onto each other’s shoulders at the edge of the overgrown field with Beppe’s body in silent attendance at our side.
The day of Beppe’s funeral, was just as I had dreamt it. We rode through heavy fog in black hearse boats to the cloud covered island of San Michele to bury him. The afternoon was cold, wet, and uncomfortable. As soon as the burial ceremony was over, it began to rain and we returned to the mainland over a choppy sea. Stefano, Stella and their daughters took Marta, and her elderly sisters home. Alberto and I raced back to our apartment, eager to be on our own. We ate something simple, and exhausted, threw off our clothes and went straight to bed.
“If you weren’t here, I wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight,” Alberto told me. “I’d be too afraid.”
“Afraid?” I raised my eyebrows. “Of what?”
“My father’s spirit coming here.”
I turned to him. The look on his face verified that he was serious. “Why would you fear that? You did everything you could for your father when he was ill…while he was alive. You were there for him to very the end.”
“It’s not a fear of retribution,” he said, arms crossed over his bare chest, as he stared at the ceiling. “Just fear of the dead, of spirits.” His chest heaved with a deep sigh.
I imagined this fear of spirits, like his claustrophobia had something to do with a frightening childhood experience he once told me about. A relative had been laid out in a coffin in their home when he was very young. He didn’t remember the details, but something about it had traumatized him—left him with a fear of closed spaces and a heightened awareness of smell. I tried to comfort him. He listened as if eager to grasp any idea that would diminish his fear. I studied his black wavy hair, his strong, intelligent face. It seemed so Venetian to me that Alberto, a thirty-four year old engineer, so knowledgeable about many things…could be afraid of ghosts, could embody such a contradiction. Born and raised in the lagoon to parents who were not worldly, Alberto was a true Venetian, part of the Venetian legacy—a seaport tradition of trade, of transcultural adaptation, of embracing and being embraced by many cultures, of new worlds clashing with the old, of loss and gain, and beneath it all, a primordial sea, from which Venice arose, steeped in unfathomable beliefs and ancient traditions
“Do you love me?” Alberto asked.
“Of course,” I replied, but his eyes still questioned me.
“I didn’t expect you to be so generous. You were very giving during all this with my father.”
“Do you love me?”
“Yes. I start to know you. Last year I was infatuated, but now it is different… so
many little things.” He sighed. “Someone once described love as two figures running around a Grecian urn and when viewing it from all sides, you can’t really tell who is chasing whom—and that is love. If one were to catch the other, it would be over.”
“If two lovers never caught up with each other, they’d miss out on a lot, don’t you think?” I teasingly, lightly ran my fingers across his chest. “Besides,” I added, “all that running sounds as if it would become exhausting after a while….
He frowned up at the chandelier. “I know women don’t fall in love with me. I’m not that type.”
“Where is this coming from, Alberto?” “True, I didn’t fall in love with you, but I love you now, which is much more important. That in love phase is ephemeral….It never lasts. Like you said—last year you were infatuated with me but now…now the infatuation’s gone”
“I worry I don’t have enough to offer you to keep you here in Venice.”
“Nonsense, Alberto. You’re tired. It has been such a hard week.”
“Come over here. I need to feel you close to me tonight.”
“A space has grown between us,” I said, eyeing the gap between the two mattresses we had joined together to make a double bed. The symbolism did not escape either of us. Now that Beppe would not be our focus, we would have to deal with it.
“That space is nothing compared to last year. Last year, we had the whole ocean between us.” He put a pillow to cover the gap between the two mattresses. “There. How’s that? A little bridge,” he said.
“How Venetian of you!”
“I know. And that’s how Venice began. A man saw a woman on another island, a forestiera, I believe, and he dreamt of her day and night, but could not find a way to go to her. He wanted the woman to be closer to him, but had to find a way to reach her. At last, he got the idea to build a bridge, a small ponte, and….”
I listened like a child being told a fairy tale and felt strangely comforted by his story. I reached out to Alberto across the bridge he had built. He clasped my hand and pulled me over to him.
“Did you really think that little gap would keep us apart? It was nothing a true Venetian couldn’t remedy.”
I smiled as we curled into each other’s bodies, exhaustion weighing on us like a heavy blanket.
I hoped we would find a way to stay together…at least until the roses bloomed in spring.