Slow Walk with Chocolate
They had gone to sleep after making love for the first time in months. For both of them it had been unexpected, as if their sexual appetite — and their appetite for each other — had been a long-forgotten object discovered by chance in the process of cleaning. And it had been a silent encounter, stumbled upon almost by accident, by the proximity forced on them by the narrow hotel bed, and by the unconscious movements of their slumber. But while silent, it had also been hungry, perhaps because of their abstinence, perhaps because, somewhere, they both sensed a void that had to be filled. A far cry, this, from the sex they had enjoyed years before, which was boisterous, humorous and energized. This encounter had been overshadowed by melancholy, shot through with the awareness that everything had changed, that their bodies were no longer the team they had been, that time and events had snaked their way between them and instead, as could have been the case, of deepening their love and their sexual excitement, had rendered each other almost untouchable.
It is raining when they wake up; she has her left leg draped over his knees, and where the two patches of flesh meet a moist warmth has developed. The heat that their two bodies have generated, naked and coiled under the thin blanket, is disproportionate to the cool February air outside. In the small room their clothes lie draped carelessly over chairs and heaped on the floor like tragic birds, floundering; the small universe of their belongings tethers them umbilically to some outside life, elsewhere, and the meaning it holds for them. From the window the dull patter of water, falling, and the occasional deep throb of a diesel engine in the canal reverberating like the furious machine that drives Time itself. This, in addition to the more benign rumblings of their hunger, wakes them, pressing them to supplement the Sicilian blood oranges and fresh dates they have lunched on. They lie quietly, each one sensing the other’s warm presence and thinking about their lives which are temporarily elsewhere, not here in this watery foreign city, both of them lumbering through the late afternoon confusion of waking. And although there is some confusion about who they are here, waking always brings with it, these days, the same certainties, the same realizations, the inescapable fact of their identity.
But certain things are beginning to take on a fresh patina of clarity now that they are alone, together. This has been the purpose of their trip, after all: to gain perspective and discern a way forward out of the morass that their shared life has become, to see, ultimately, what is left of their lives.
Noises in the corridor nudge them towards movement; a shower turning on, a toilet flushing; other couples disentangling themselves from afternoon naps and lovemaking to wash and go out for diner. He swings his legs off the bed and places his two feet on the white tile floor noticing the contrast of his black hair with the ceramic surface, the contrasts of warm on cold, living and not living. Through the window he sees the cupola of the neighboring church whose name he cannot remember. She gets up and pads around the bed, wrapping a towel around her body.
I’m going to take a shower.
He remains looking into the darkness and listening to the sounds of her washing, imagining what she is feeling as she lathers her body with soap and senses the pellets of water on her neck. Water. Massaging her vessels back into circulation, aiding life.
It wasn’t always like this, he says as she comes back into the room. The sounds, all of it would have had a different meaning — you know? Nodding, she begins drying her hair in two hands and tilting her head to the left. Then she clips on her bra. In the window he watches her reflection as she dresses, minutely scrutinizing her breasts, her pale smooth thighs, the tendons in her legs. The stretch marks on her stomach which have still not cleared after her pregnancy.
It would all have been more real in the days before it was a tourist trap.
What do you mean?
You know. No one would have been trying to figure out what it was like in the Renaissance. Everything would have been related to people’s lives, the here and now.
Yeah. I suppose so.
Life would have had an organic quality back then. People would’ve walked the streets with a purpose.
When they leave the hotel the man at the desk says goodnight with a heavy Croatian accent. In the alleyway outside a young man stands leaning against the damp wall, his face sweaty, his eyes dull with heroin. In this silent city people drift by like ghosts, each one a coda for himself, each footstep an echo of another. On the fundamenta people are strolling — this is the purpose. She holds onto his arm as they walk towards the Rialto along the broad thoroughfare of the Strada Nuova. This part of the city feels more familiar than the rest of its quiet narrow alleys, and they walk past cafes, clothes stores and jewelry shops. At the door of McDonalds they are hit by a wall of frying smells; a colorful group of young people stand on the threshold, reveling in themselves, celebrating their bodies, eating French fries.
They walk on, not knowing where they are heading. They thread their way through slim archways, over narrow bridges, where the canals take on a dank and putrid quality, occasionally emerging into intimate piazzas, which might once have held promises of grandeur, but which are now only stubborn memories of dignity. Hungry for something, but not ready to break the walk for dinner, they stop at a small store that sells chocolate and cards and water. The woman behind the counter smiles as they pay for the two small brightly colored balls of chocolate, before resuming their walk. They continue through the streets until they reach the end of one canal which empties into the Veneto. They notice a small path which leads along the shoreline, and on the other side of it is a tall brick wall enclosing a very large space. Stray cats come and go through holes in the wall. He peers through one of the holes and stares at the cavernous inside.
Jeesus! It’s so huge in there! This must have been a foundry. He turns to look at her. Apparently “ghetto” is the Venetian word for foundry. Did you know? She turns and looks at him.
He looks inside the enormous structure again. The Doge put all the Jews in Canareggio. So many of them, they had to build houses seven stories high! To their left the sea gently rubs against the rocks jostling the trash washing around the lagoon.
Thank God we’re more civilized now, she said.
He looks down at the trash: a milk carton, several decaying packets of cigarettes. In the distance a speedboat cuts the water on its way past the cemetery, its engine a thin whine in the air. They continue past the foundry and through a scrubby area which they have to leave by bending down and climbing through a hole in a thick hedge. They find themselves back in a warren of empty narrow streets, and soon they come upon a wide open piazza with a view of the lagoon. The square is in a particularly sorry condition; laundry hangs from windows, heaps of garbage collect in the corners, and a few desultory pigeons peck at the dirt on the ground, apart from which it is entirely empty. They sit down on a bench and watch as a tubby green garbage barge comes along the canal. Its single crew member operates a small crane which picks up a barrel on the side of the canal and empties the contents into the barge’s hold.
She pulls the chocolate out from her coat pocket and peels away its wrapper, savoring each bite, turning the chocolate around to see where to attack next. He watches her for a moment, then takes his chocolate out, unwraps it and takes a chunk out of it with his front teeth, then another. He finishes his chocolate, savoring the last molecules on his tongue and teeth, moving the taste around until it is diluted completely by saliva, and then, accepting its final disappearance and wondering briefly at how things don’t last. The garbage barge replaces the trashcan on dry land with its articulated arm and its small engine whines as it moves along the canal to the next location, leaving the piazza eerily quiet. They sit in silence for several minutes. Her face is smooth and pale, her brown eyes dark, the face which was once that of a child, then a mother, now neither.
She had imagined disaster scenarios before, many times in fact. But she knew that notwithstanding these brief fantasies through which she would contemplate tragedy, she had taken everything for granted. Through these small, half-open windows Disaster had presented itself for her to glimpse its outlines, but when the real thing had arrived, she found herself totally unprepared — as if one could ever be prepared. Once or twice when he had been late returning from an outing she had worried that something terrible had happened — usually, in fact, she imagined a car accident — that seemed the most statistically likely event. This happened whenever she could not bring to mind any reasonable explanation for his tardiness, couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t where he was supposed to be. He would always come back with some perfectly reasonable explanation that she kicked herself for not having thought of. And at those times she was momentarily seized by panic, amazed at the realization that when you have something to lose the world looks like a very different, very dangerous place.
Before Alice, she had never worried like this. Before Alice he could be gone for hours, unaccountably, and she would wonder — worry, even — but not panic, not pace back and forth wondering when was the correct time to pick up the phone, call the police and say: My husband and daughter are missing, have there been any accidents? At what point does one seem hysterical and at what point is it reasonable to make one’s fear public in order to alleviate it?
After Alice was born she came to perceive the environment in which they lived, London, as an immensely hazardous place, so much so that it was a miracle that humans managed to survive in it at all; that a pedestrian could safely cross the street, that one could avoid fatal viruses, that gas explosions did not routinely kill hundreds of people in their homes. The only way she managed to gain the upper hand over this fear was through pro-active caution: She installed hard-wired smoke detectors and carbon-monoxide sensors; she persuaded him to upgrade their car to a model with dual airbags, anti-lock brakes and a higher safety-rating; she plugged up the electrical outlets, gated the stairs, put extra locks on the cellar door. Thus sufficiently protected from machinery, electricity, gravity, and human malfeasance, she began to reduce her anxiety, and after a year or two became a little more sanguine about many of the other risks about which there was very little one could do. But she still felt anxious to the core when she knew that Alice was out there, somewhere, without her, and this was no reflection of her trust of him, there was simply no substitute for having her within sight at all times.
Shall we keep going? I’m getting hungry? He stands up, walks over to the trash barrel and drops his chocolate wrapper in it, briefly savoring the concept of being the first piece of trash in a brand new bag. She stands up and does the same. They walk along the canal until they come to a small bridge, the other side of which is some kind of military or naval compound with high gates and a couple of guards standing sentry in colorful uniforms.
They have only been there two days. Already it is becoming clear to both of them what is going to happen. To that extent, at least, the trip has served its purpose: figuring out where to go from here. They have been together the entire time, but silent, not wanting to encroach on any territory that would undermine them, and it is dawning on her that being together is not what she wants. There is no solace left; they have provided that already, at the time when it was most needed, but now, several months have passed and the ground is shifting under them, the future is asking questions of them, and their feelings for each other have reached a neutral place, a dead place, notwithstanding their lovemaking earlier — that, if anything, underlined the huge distances between them now. It is inconceivable to her that they could go on together for the rest of their lives without Alice; she was such a linchpin between them — as if their relationship had withered to become only an environment for bringing her up, with little real purpose beyond that. It wasn’t that they didn’t love each other, but that the love between them, like most love between a man and a woman, had been all but eclipsed by the overwhelming adoration one lavishes on a small child. It might have been rekindled after the excesses of early parenthood, after they had come to their senses and emerged from their ten-year stupefaction, but circumstance cheated them of that possibility, and they were left, bereft, and without the opportunity to re-discover each other. The cement that had held this trio together had been removed.
Beyond this was something more, something undeniable — more than the neutral absence of a child — it was the positive agony that her absence brought with it, and in her mind, he only served as a reminder of this pain; when she looked at him she saw Alice’s large brown eyes staring back; she saw the firm set of Alice’s lip. And she always looked further, as if he made no sense without Alice hanging from him, standing next to him, tugging on his coattail. How was it possible to live with someone who constantly reminded you, by their simple presence, of your dead child?
They wind their way through more silent and ill-lit streets as it becomes dark. I just can’t do it any more, she says, turning to look at him. He walks on slowly, moving a few steps ahead of her with his head down, until he stops and turns. Their footsteps make a hollow sound until their echoes cease. For him it is different.
Why does it have to be like this? It wasn’t always about Alice. We had a life before, for a reason — because we loved each other, regardless of Alice. She takes his hand.
I know. I know we did. But that was before. Its different now. I can’t get beyond that. I’m sorry.
He looks at her. A few streets away they hear the sounds of a woman laughing, followed by a man’s voice, shouting in Italian.
Why? He says. She looks away, up at the windows of the house next to them, and beyond it to the narrow patch of dark sky above it.
I don’t know. I can’t explain it. I just feel empty, and it doesn’t go away. I don’t know what you want from me any more, but whatever it is, I don’t think I have it. Its as if I don’t have anything I can give anybody, its all gone. And I don’t want anything. At least not now. And I can’t say when I will. Perhaps never. I don’t know.
He starts walking again, slowly, driven partly by his hunger, partly by a desire to get out of this dank passageway and this impossible situation.
I don’t understand, he says, his voice rising now. I mean, I know its hard, its hard for me too, for god’s sake. But that doesn’t mean that I just drop everything and give up, sacrificing everything left in my life. One major element of your life is gone, yes, but do you have to sabotage the rest? He stops himself, realizing, since they had been through this before, that he would just make her cry, and getting a sudden sense that it was pointless. He is exhausted anyway, exhausted by the monumental effort he has been exerting in trying to bring her around, like a disabled tug boat trying to swing a tanker in the wind, there is a sense of inevitability about the situation, and her state of mind since the accident has only become increasingly despondent, increasingly resilient to influence. Had Alice so eclipsed them that their marriage had become nothing?
She walks on slowly, as if also exhausted by the weight of this discussion, and soon they find themselves back on the teeming fundamenta, heading towards the train station, back past Mcdonalds where a small group of teenage boys is now holding court, whispering pithy enticements to passing girls.
As the street widens and comes to resemble a more recognizable street in any other city in Italy, so the crowds grow, strolling and heading to dinner. In a major piazza brightly lit by stores and restaurants, they hear a commotion and soon zero in on its source: a man stands yelling at a twelve-year-old boy, while a younger boy stands by, watching. A father having an argument with his son. They slow down and observe from a distance as people walk by the spectacle, turning their heads briefly, then passing on. At first they do not pay it much attention, assuming it is merely another family quarrel, or the standard voluminous Italian discussion, but then they notice something strident and violent in the man’s voice, and something scared and primal in the boy’s cringing position next to him that forces them to stop and look. The man has the boy by the arm, and every so often his foot comes up to kick the boy on his hip, aiming for his backside but not achieving the angle. The boy is whimpering, and staring at the ground, and upon every kick administered to him he jumps a few inches in their air and wails, whereupon the man backs off a foot or so and quickly, furtively, looks around him.
They stand rooted to the spot, unable to advance.
Jeesus! Look at that fucker, he says, staring. It suddenly dawns on her that the incident is more than your average parental frustration, as the man’s shoe makes contact with the boy, and his wail lights up the piazza like a Roman candle, cutting through the low hubbub of the crowd.
Oh my God! Shouldn’t we do something? She looks around them, as if searching for an authority who could step in and mete out justice. But there are no police, and the mixed crowd of tourists and Italians are nonplussed by the commotion and flow past and around it like water around a rock protruding from the river.
Stare at him. That’s right! We’ve got your number, asshole! He says quietly, although the man is a hundred yards away. The man looks around again as the boy wails, and, scanning the crowd for any sign of trouble, seems to catch their eye for a second or two as they stand their ground, firmly glaring in his direction. The man’s attention returns to the boy who had shrugged his arm loose of the man’s grip, and he continues to yell at him in Italian, advancing on the boy as the boy retreats like a skulking dog.
Don’t these fucking Italians care! Its incredible! How does he think he can get away with it? He says, edging closer to the man, advancing on him slowly as the crowd pressed on, and the man delivers yet another kick to the cowering boy.
We’re watching you, arsehole, he says loudly, yet still out of ear shot, and he raises his arm towards the man, pointing. The man looks around again, and this time held their stare, caught between a glare and a strange look of culpability, for a couple of seconds.
Oh shit! She says, holding his arm.
Don’t worry. He’s a coward. He’s not coming after us. Just shame him and he’ll stop. Make him know that we’re watching, that what he’s doing is shameful..
The man turns his attention back to the boy and kicks him again, this time pulling him towards him, grabbing the other boy, and moving off down the fundamenta. A few other people have finally stopped and are standing near them, staring. The man casts furtive glances around him as he moves away with the two boys.
They stand watching the man retreat for a few moments, and the crowd resumes its flow down the street. Then they continue in silence until they reach Saint Mark’s. It is dark by now, and a cool wind comes off the water and across the square. Two painters stand outside one of the big cafes, beginning to dismantle their easels. He stops next to one of them and looked over his shoulder at a small, dark, oil painting of the Bridge of Sighs. The painter turns around and greets him.
“You were here yesterday, no?” the painter says to him in thick, accented English.
“Yes, that’s right. I’m still looking, I’m afraid!” He says.
“That’s okay,” says the painter, smiling at both of them. “Will you join me for some hot chocolate?” He gestures to the café. “I was just finishing up here.”
He looks at her, and then he looks back at the painter.
“Well, sure,” he says. “But we were about to have dinner… Perhaps a quick one…”
They enter the café and the painter goes to the bar to order the drinks. He soon returns with three cups and puts them down on the small table where they are sitting.
“How long have you been painting here?” she asks him, sipping on her hot chocolate.
“Oh. Its been nearly ten years, now. But I have some problem, with my apartment. I had a very good deal, then the landlord wanted to put up the rent. I had to leave. I now stay with my friend,” He gestures to the other painter who is talking to an American couple outside the café. “Sometimes in summer I go to Amsterdam — the Venice of the North! I have some friends there and we paint and sell watercolors to tourists, like here.” He does not look particularly happy about this turn of events, but strangely, his melancholy demeanor does not detract from his hospitable presence, as if he is not trying to charm or ingratiate.
“Where are you from originally?” she asks the painter.
“I am a Kurd,” he says, taking a drink, and then as if needing to clarify, “I grew up in Iraq.” He pauses and they all fall silent for a few seconds.
“When did you leave your home?” he asks, looking at the painter. He notices that he has light skin, lighter than he would have imagined for a Kurd, but his face, rugged and lined, although not yet old, has something of the visages he was familiar with from several years of newspaper articles about Kurds, and the various atrocities done to them by one Middle Eastern government or another.
“It has been nearly twenty years,” he says, finally, with a grimace. He pulled out his cigarettes and lit one. Then he looked out of the café door, and across the square. “Are you hungry? Come, I will make you dinner,” he said. They protested, claiming it would be too much trouble, that he must be tired after his long day. But when they realized that he would not take no for an answer, and that they were probably being rude in refusing, they agreed, and stood up to follow him. They crossed the square in what had become a cold wind, and made their way to the ferry terminal to make the crossing to the Lido.
On the ferry’s deck, they stand looking at St. Mark’s receding, the clouds racing above the lagoon as they near the other shore. Under the hum of the turbines they are mostly silent, keeping the cold wind at bay and observing the views of Venice that the trip affords. On disembarking they walk down a series of bland side streets, like entering a different country, and the painter ducks into a small grocery store, emerging a few moments later with a plastic bag in each hand. The apartment he shares with his colleague is in a characterless brick four-story building. They are both surprised at how the Lido seems to represent such a bland contrast to Venice proper, and the irony of this for the painter: he spends his working hours peddling the aesthetic wonders of the ancient city, and retreats to his home, here, which could be any modern Italian suburb, complete with cars and driveways and supermarkets.
Inside, the apartment is equally non-descript, apart from the large collection of paintings in various stages of completion, and the heaps of painter’s materials — paper, boxes of pencils and containers of paint, easels and photographs of various scenes of the city, from which both roommates are working.
He pours them each a glass of wine from the bottle he bought at the store, and gives them a bowl of olives on which to snack as he un-packs the rest of his supplies from the plastic bags. They keep him supplied with questions, comments about the apartment, observations on some of his works-in-progress. He does not seem very talkative, as if he is pre-occupied with something else, and it is hard work keeping the conversation going, almost as if he is satisfied just to have some company, and content not to have to talk too much. Within twenty minutes he has produced a large bowl of pasta with a mushroom sauce, and a bowl of salad, and he sits down at the table and distributes the food.
“How do you like living in Italy?” she asks him, “I see you’ve mastered Italian cooking.”
The painter looks resigned. “I cook with whatever I have around me, you know? That is how I live, too, I make do with my surroundings. But you know, Venice is a morbid place. I live here because its good for work, at the moment. Maybe that will change. But I don’t like it. All it has is tourism, there is nothing real anymore.”
“Do you have any family here?” She asks, prodding for more information.
“No. No family, anymore. They are all gone.”
She looks at him, to see if there would be further explanation, but he twirls some spaghetti on a fork and concentrates on it.
“My family is dead. That is why I left.”
“I’m sorry,” she says, then, hesitating, she asks, “How did they die?” She is looking at him directly, as she puts down her fork.
“They were killed by the government. I was very young. It was a long time ago.” They are all silent for a while. Outside some cars pass, and they could hear a light patter of rain against the window. Then he continues.
“They came in trucks one day, to the village. Other Kurds, who worked for the government, told us we were to be re-located and that we had to get in the trucks. My family got in one of them. We were five brothers and two sisters, I was the youngest. We drove in trucks for hours, at least it felt like that, over rocky roads. Everyone was quiet in the trucks, except for some very young children who were crying because they had no water and it was very hot. I remember my mother was muttering prayers to herself and holding several of us. My father was very quiet. Eventually they unloaded us; some government soldiers took us and walked us a long way into the mountains. It was dark. We arrived at a deep pit, and they ordered us to take our clothes off. Some people refused, and they were beaten with rifles.” He pauses and lights a cigarette, drinking from his wine glass.
“I’m sorry. You don’t want to hear this. It is all in the past. And I am here, in Italy, in Europe, safe and sound.” he says.
“No,” she says. “We do. We want to hear it — if you want to tell it. Please go on.”
He looks at her, for a moment, and then shrugs as if to say all right.
“I remember shooting; it came from nowhere, but all of a sudden people were dropping around us, silently, there was no other noise. My father grabbed hold of me as if to shield me, and we fell into the pit, and were covered by several others, other men who had been shot. We lay there for a while, and I could feel my father breathing, and holding me. I struggled once to move but he tightened his arms around me as if to tell me to be still. I could feel blood on my arm and shoulder, coming from the man beside me. Then we heard the bulldozers, and it was then that my father made his move. He dragged me and together we fought our way out of the pit as the bulldozers covered it over with earth. We hid in some brush for an hour or more until the army trucks had gone and then we walked away from that place. I never saw my brothers and sisters or my mother again. I left them in that pit, buried.”
In the lagoon the ferry sounds its horn. The painter lights a cigarette.
“You know, I haven’t told anybody this story. For all these years I buried it, like they buried my family. But recently, perhaps because things seem to have changed, it has all come back. But I can’t escape the feeling that I died that night too. I don’t feel like I can go back, because they destroyed everything I knew. I live here now. But I am not the same person that I was then — I don’t quite know who I am. I live from day to day. I get what pleasure I can from life — some friends, good food, beauty.”
“It must be very lonely,” she says.
“In a way. Yes, of course. But I don’t want anything else. I used to think I did. Then I realized I was trying to re-create what I had lost. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing with these pictures too, re-creating the past, memorializing an age we think of as great, mistakenly, in my opinion,” he gestures to a half-finished oil painting of a dimly lit canal with a working barge moored to a post. The painting is grim, there is no doubt about it, as if the barge is a funeral boat, empty, and waiting for cargo; the canal the river Styx.
“No. I think I’m adjusted to my solitude now. We are all alone, ultimately, aren’t we?” He smiles at them.
Saint Mark’s is empty when they step off the ferry. The light rain is keeping people from any late-night reveling. The Doge’s palace glimmers gently in the street lights and the water glistens on the gold of the Basilica. The painter’s hospitality has left them speechless on the ferry ride back. As they walk through the square she holds his hand briefly. There is nothing reassuring about the architecture; nothing to roll back the oppressive fact that along with the banality of random tragic moments, there also lurk acts of conscious evil, sometimes small and individual, and sometimes — catastrophically — on a very large scale. The achievements of the city they walk through do not deny this, have even possibly added to the miseries and injustices in the world — the fact that the Venetians had taken advantage of the height of the Roman campanile in St. Marks to dangle state prisoners from is testament to this; the very buildings so artfully recreated by the city’s painters are actually monuments to torture and human degradation. She thinks of the foundry they had walked through earlier, of Venice’s Jewish ghetto. How could it be that one of the most beautiful cities on earth had given rise to the very concept of a ghetto? And she thinks of a line extending from London through Venice and stretching across the deserts to Kurdistan, an axis of suffering which dissects space and time. While Alice had been a victim of the unexpected, senseless danger of the modern world, otherwise safe, insured, protected, inoculated, others lived in the shadow of darker omens, whether medieval diseases and pogroms in the name of religion, or state-sponsored terrorism.
On the fundamenta the customers have finally left McDonalds. The cafes are closed and the streets are silent. In the wall of the church opposite their hotel someone has lit a votive candle underneath an icon of the Madonna and child. She sits down on a bench near the church, as if unwilling to end the evening and return to their claustrophobic hotel room. He sits next to her.
Poor Dilshad. She says. They have not spoken of him up to this point.
He must feel so alone. He says.
It was human evil that took Alice, regardless of how random it all seemed. She says. The police car, heading to the robbery — the same human evil that buried Dilshad’s family.
He winces at the thought, hearing the noise the police car made when it drove its front end into the back of his car. The engine, with its heat and moving parts and oil, propelling Alice’s body across the back seat — the energy unleashed in that few seconds enough to stop her heart, collapse her lungs and deliver irreparable trauma to her head.
Just give me time, She says. Time to find who I am by myself.