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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Trinacria (Continued from Cybercorpse #10)
by Eugene Mirabelli || Author's Links

We rejoin the old painter Renato Stillamare as he scribbles about his mis-spent youth. In the previous excerpt he told how his infant self was found on the doorstep of a large, disorderly Italian-American family. He was taken in by them and adopted by the young Bianca and her husband Fred, a stone cutter. He grew up under the influence of two uncles, one an aeronautical engineer who loved of numbers, and the other a teacher of philosophy and philology, a fanatic for words. As it happened, young Renato much preferred painting to numbers or words and went off to art school. In this excerpt he chronicles some of the women he met along the way.

One day I wrote a list of the women I had made love to, wrote it not from stupid vanity but in despair and madness, for I was crazed with influenza, my head banging like a loose door when I lifted it from the pillow - lying there sweaty and unshaven and rank, I made the list to show myself that although I was nobody and might die in that stinking loft at least I had been loved by these women. I'm sure you would have done something finer and more spiritual for solace, but I was me at twenty-five and my brains were cooking in my skull: when my friend Max brought me a bag of food I snatched the drinking glass from my bedside table and threw it at him, and when he said, Hey! Stop that! I grabbed the aspirin bottle and hurled it at his head, which it grazed before exploding against the wall. When the list of women turned up a few years later at the bottom of a paintbox I tossed it out, but then added a few more names and tucked it away again, because I didn't want to be the kind of man who fucks and forgets, and long after I was married I came across it rewritten and folded as a bookmark in an old sketchbook, so I kept it. Yesterday I searched all over the place and couldn't find it, shook out every mildewed sketchbook and portfolio, and this morning I tried to recompose the list and was embarrassed to find that I had lost the names of some of those women or remembered only a nickname, and when I thought I had gathered everyone, two others turned up to remind me that there might be more I had forgotten. I hadn't thought of those young women for forty years and recalling them made me sigh, slump in my chair and grow melancholy, and I don't know why, because all I remembered was how trusting we were with each other and that's nothing to be sad about.
     True, I did meet one or two cold bitches who would turn a man's heart inside out just to see what it contained and I knew it instantly, afterward, while I was still on my knees, pulling out and panting, "What am I doing here?" I confess I've been fortunate, for God gave me privates which know when to hang back out of shyness, and shy privates have saved me in beds where my brains have failed. But the women I remember best were good-natured and far more patient than I, which reminds me that I want to apologize to them, finally, for my moodiness, my endless ranting about galleries, for implying that a bad time in bed was never my fault, for my sullen silences, for my throwing paints and brushes, smashing furniture, slamming doors, for destroying someone else's books or stealing their cigarettes or underwear, for my waking a body at three in the morning just to talk, and a hundred other misdemeanors.
     Now let me go back to when I was a student, grinding and polishing my talent till it was bright as the blade of an ax. In Boston one winter day I ran into the girl from Newburyport, the one I had known in the summer, now buttoned up in a long black coat with a black beret pulled down to her ears. We stood on the arctic pavement, stamping our feet and beating our arms to keep warm, and I learned she was in her first year at Boston University and planned to major in comparative literature, a subject in which she could use her French, and she liked living in Boston. I felt so many different ways at once and I can't recall what I said. Afterward, as I was trotting away, I thought it would be nice to phone her and go out for a cup of coffee and a longer talk and I don't recall why it never happened.
     Of course, by then I was going around with Sophia and that would have been reason enough. I wish I could give you Sophia as she was then, her looks and also her talk, for she had a way of talking that dazzled me like acrobatics. She enjoyed words, including dirty ones, the way another woman might enjoy oranges or cherries, and when we made love it was mostly what she said that brought me to a frenzy. She claimed to like the way I said whatever I was feeling - "I love you because you're so rash," she told me - but there were feelings I didn't have words for and whenever I tried to tell her about those things she would say, "If you don't have the word for it, you don't really have it." More than once I secretly had to look up a word she had used. One night after she had gone home I cut up my dictionary, took a scissors and cut out word after word until the pages were in shreds, then in a flush of embarrassment I stuffed them back into the book. The next time she said, "If you can't say it, you can't have it," we were naked, kneeling face to face on my bed. I wrestled her onto her stomach, a position she never liked, and while she thrashed and began cursing me I grabbed the dictionary from the bed table and shook it open over her so words swirled down in a blizzard, making a word-drift in the saddle of her beautiful back.
     I saw the girl from Newburyport two years later at a big party. By then Sophia and I had broken up or, to be precise, Sophia had dumped me after some lapses on my part, after scolding me every other month, calling me a truant and a delinquent because I had gotten involved with other women, mostly during those times when Sophia said we should lead more independent lives. The party was in the West End, the old brick West End that used to be, for the neighborhood no longer exists, the people thrown out and their homes demolished to make way for the rich; anyway, the West End, the rooms small and so crowded it took me half an hour to edge into the kitchen and that's where I bumped into the Newburyport girl again, and we said Oh! and Hi! and I felt the same confusion as before. I put a few chunks of ice in my drink and asked if I could get her something. "Fill it with gin," she said cheerfully, holding out her glass. "Gin and what?" I asked. "Just gin," she said simply. We went out the kitchen door and sat sweating on the back steps under a hot copper sunset. She said she was still at Boston University, but was now majoring in art history with a minor in French and hoped to go to Paris next summer. She was waitressing this summer. I said I had finally finished at the Museum School, was working as a carpenter and waiting to get drafted. I wanted to talk about Sophia but decided against it, so we sat there not talking, just looking at the fading sky and the wilted flowers. She lit a cigarette.
     "Ka-gi-gi," I said. "Just now I remembered your Indian name, the Algonquin name you named yourself. Ka-gi-gi, the raven."
     She looked at me. There was a fine glaze of sweat beneath her eyes, like when we made love that first summer, and for a moment I thought I could smell her skin, which started a little panic in me. She let the smoke drift from her mouth and she said, "I was fourteen. I hated my real name."
     "You have a beautiful name."
     "Yes? Well, I didn't think so at the time."
     "Did you come with somebody tonight?" I had come alone and thought maybe she, too, was single this evening and would leave with me.
     "He's inside."
     "You shouldn't drink that way," I told her, more sharply than I intended.
     "What way?"
     "You shouldn't drink so much gin so fast."
     Abruptly she went and poured her glass into the flowerbed and came back to sit closer beside me on the steps, where we exchanged phone numbers, and for a time that evening I kept her in sight, attempting to figure out who she was with, and I even trailed her out to the garden and listened to her throwing up in the dark, after which I began talking to a hefty young woman in a black sun dress, a badly drawn version of Sophia, and I ended up at her place. I was drafted that fall, did my Basic Training at Fort Dix and was soon discharged because of allergies which disappeared when I became a civilian again.
     I spent the next six months in New York, painting and meeting people (Max, Karen, Sue, and Wilson, but especially Max - good guy, good painter), then returned to Boston and met Odine, a tall woman with swan-white skin. By then I was achieving great things in abstract expressionism and psychotherapy, I thought, and Odine didn't lecture me about other women, didn't call me names the way Sophia had, but was non-judgmental and told me I was sick and, she explained, I was sick because I had started life as a foundling and it was my insecurity about who I was that compelled me to seek out women, for under the guise of hunting for a fresh bedmate I was really searching for my mother. And her diagnosis was probably right, I thought, because I had all the symptoms, but my having this ailment didn't bother Odine and I was grateful for that.
     Odine had begun an M.A. in contemporary philosophy, a densely mathematical matter, so one night she came over to tell me about Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) and his thoughts on the intrinsic geometry of surfaces, a subject I found much more interesting than the usual discussion of our relationship. Gauss could calculate the curvature of a surface by drawing a triangle on it and measuring the interior angles and he had actually used the technique in his great land survey of Germany. To test this I tore off Odine's silk jersey, grabbed a black crayon and drew the triangle ABC with its apex (A) at the top of Odine's long spine and its base (BC) running from her left hip bone to her tenth right rib, but before I could make a good survey she had rolled over and pulled me in, and by the time that business was over the phone was ringing. It was Ka-gi-gi, the raven, the girl from Newburyport, saying I'm at the airport. Can I come over? I just got in from Paris and all I want to do is sleep. -Or do you have someone there? I waved to Odine who had finished brushing her hair and was going out the door. "No, that's fine," I said.
     Her face was thinner than I had remembered and the faintly asymmetrical sea-green eyes were darker. I told her I'd sleep on the floor and she could take the bed. She smiled and said, "Don't be crazy. And I wouldn't impose on you, but you're the only person I know who still lives around here."
     "How's Paris?" I asked.
     "Paris is great unless you discover you're pregnant right away. That's why I came back. And now, actually, I'm afraid to go home. I mean, I don't want to be a problem to my poor parents. I don't know what I'm going to do. And I suppose I'll wind up waitressing again. -My head is throbbing from those damn engines," she added, just before she drifted to sleep on a couple of folded blankets, her head pillowed on her bunched-up raincoat.
     The next morning when I woke up she was at the window, gazing down at the street. I made the coffee, poured her a cup, and did all the talking, for she was amazingly quiet and didn't say a word, just smoked her cigarette and didn't touch her coffee. "I began having these cramps in Paris and now I'm bleeding," she said at last, a quaver coming into her voice. Her eyes began to glisten and fill, brimming. I ran down to the street for a cab, went with her to the emergency room where a doctor said it was a miscarriage, and I stayed with her until a nurse took her away. I visited her in the hospital the next day but she was sleeping, a hospital ID bracelet around her wrist, so I just stood there and watched her, and grew sad remembering how seven years earlier I had been wild about her, and now I felt only this hollow in my chest and even when I took a deep breath the hollow didn't fill. I came back the next day and we talked, but not much, and the following afternoon she went home to Newburyport. That September I sent her an invitation to a show I was in, care of her parents' address in Newburyport, but she didn't answer or turn up at the gallery and I supposed she had gone back to Paris.
     I was laboring on abstractions during those years, didn't do any figurative work and have no paintings of Odine from that time, which is too bad because she had an interesting body, formal and precise and clearly articulated, her breasts high and rather flat, sweetly tipped, and her skin so white and inviting that I sometimes took a grease pencil to it and drew the bones and musculature that lay beneath the surface. I always liked Odine and I hope she's okay and doing well in this world, and if she reads this I want to say Thank you for being so patient and letting me learn anatomy with you. Later that fall she went to Stanford to continue her studies and I to New York to hook up with some friends, Max among them.
     The first deKoonings I had seen were at the Museum School in 1953 and I had thought, Oh, wow, I can do that. Now in the city we tried to meet those painters and though we visited a lot of galleries we never connected with important people, and a couple of times I even went to The Cedars, which was supposed to be a great place for that crowd to drink and pick up a quick fuck, but I could never drink much or pick up a woman in a bar. I had hoped to get my work looked at by other painters and maybe by a gallery or a buyer, but after a few months I ran out of money and took a part-time job illustrating manuals and catalogs for a hardware company which, I told myself, was a good way to learn graphical precision and discipline, but it was soul destroying work and I longed to be outdoors pulling lobster pots or stacking crates of fish, and though I had friends I felt lonely much of the time and used to press myself into the corner of my room to feel the walls embrace me while I wept.
     I got sick and sicker: my head throbbed, my guts felt like they had been pulled inside out, I couldn't stand up at the washbowl or walk but had to crawl back to bed. Two days later my friend Max came by, took one look and came back with a bag of food, which is when I threw the drinking glass at him and tried to brain him with the aspirin bottle. Another afternoon he came around with a bottle of ginger ale and a box of crackers and he had with him a woman named Bena who returned alone the next day to cook me a meal, she said. Bena was a large but firmly built woman - "Statuesque, Renato. The word is statuesque," she said, seating herself slowly on the margin of my bed - with dark hair and dark eyes. Maybe she would have looked overweight if she had gained a pound here or there, but she never added even an ounce and remained properly large-bodied, larger than any woman I had known. When I had taken the straps of her slip from her shoulders, had rumpled the bodice down to her waist and had begun to push it further down, she stretched and smiled and murmured, "No. It can't get past my hips. It comes off the other way. Over my head -" and indeed it did. Even after I left the flu behind, got off my bed and began to get around, Bena insisted on coming over to cook a meal again and again. She didn't care for my drawings of some young women I had been going with a few months earlier - "Scrawny. Malnourished," she called them - but she liked my abstractions, talked about them intelligently, and also said she believed that my desire to paint was an unconscious stratagem, a way for me to remain a child forever and avoid adult responsibilities and, unwittingly, to destroy myself. "You like to draw pictures. You want to play with colors and shapes forever." She didn't think any the less of me for this, quite the contrary. "I admire you. Artists are eternally young," she told me one evening while I watched her unpin her hair and remove her blouse. "People have known this for a long time. Artists are children. They are children in their delight at the world and in their spontaneous creativity," she said, reaching behind her back to unhook her bra. "And what's important is to keep them from self-destructive tantrums." Her breasts had the largest and darkest aureoles I had ever seen.
     Bena used to come by my place after her shift at Beth Israel where she worked as a dietician, and I'm sure her potato pancakes and chicken soup helped me get stronger. I was sorry she had that lunatic theory about artists being happy children, spontaneously drawing pictures and coloring inside the lines, because other than that she made sense, mostly. I hadn't gotten my full weight back, but I felt good and my mind was clear, very clear. I knew I wasn't destroying myself, knew also that the New York art business was rotting my soul and making me sick and I knew it would be good for me to leave. So, early one morning, before Bena arrived, I packed everything I wanted into my suitcase, broke up all my paintings and crammed them into the huge metal drum I used for a trash barrel, then I poured kerosene into the drum and set it on fire. It made a surprising lot of black smoke, so I shoved the drum over to the window and pushed open all the window vents. The flames crept up into the smoke and the ceiling began to blacken. I poked into the barrel with a broomstick, hooked one of the flaming canvasses and pitched it out the open window, then pitched out another and another and so on, letting them sail this way and that down to Green Street. It was exhilarating.
     "Hey, Renato!" somebody said, and she wasn't in Newburyport or Paris but here in my doorway.
     "I thought you were going to Paris!" I said.
     "I'm leaving tomorrow. What are you doing?"
     "I'm getting rid of some rotten sick bad paintings."
     She gave me a quick smile. "I was on the sidewalk hunting for your address when these pieces of fire began to fall out of the sky. I thought it might be you."
     "Want to go out for breakfast?" I asked her.
     She said yes, so I picked up my suitcase and my paintbox and we walked down to the street where she waved off some guy in a chrome yellow sports car. I asked who he was and she said "Just a friend who gave me a ride down here. Let's eat, I'm starved." We ate breakfast in a deli and I asked what had she been doing for the past nine months and she said she'd been waitressing around Newburyport and now she was going back to Paris to study art history. Her father had been ailing but he was better now. I was sorry to hear about her father whom I remembered only as a tall man who loved to grow flowers. I told her I was sick of New York and was leaving it for good, and that I planned to go home for a few weeks, then go to Cape Ann where my aunt Gina had a café and I'd work outdoors and not paint for a while. I started to tell her all sorts of things I had been brooding about, but I broke off for fear of boring her. "I have your parents' address," she said. "And here's where I'll be staying when I get to Paris." She wrote it on a paper napkin and slid it across the table to me.
     "I don't know how to write letters very well," I told her, stuffing the napkin into my breast pocket.
     "Send me drawings," she said.

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