Monday, August 6, 2012

Excerpt from Trompe-l'oeil for the Internet Peace Day HOP Broadcast

Chapter 39

Kit awoke several hours later after a long sleep—then crawled carefully out of bed so as not to wake Daneka, who seemed almost to be in a coma.  He surveyed the chaos in the room and chuckled, then slipped on a pair of jeans and walked to the French doors and out to the terrace overlooking the piazza below.
It was early evening, and nothing in all of Kit’s experience had prepared him for the sight of an early-evening Italian sky in late spring.  He was a photographer who knew how to create magic with light, shadow, shade and all of the nuances in between.  And yet, he was at a loss to name—much less describe—what here and now met his eyes.
The sun had apparently already dipped below the western horizon.  In its place, he watched as the promise of another far more subtle visual delight climbed up from the same favonian source behind the thirteenth-, fourteenth- and fifteenth-century residential buildings surrounding the piazza.  As it passed through filters of dust particles close to the earth’s surface and then feathered out onto billowy cumulous cushions, this refracted light played with a palette of pinks, oranges and reds unlike any Kit had ever seen replicated in a color spectrum.
At the same time, gangs of swallows chased flying insects, when not each other, in funnels up and down and across the piazza—a pointillist’s portrayal of whirlwinds, occurring and then dissipating just as suddenly and as randomly as they might in the desert or at sea.
At ground-level, he noted activity quite different from what he’d seen earlier that day.  Preparations were underway for some form of entertainment or spectacle.  If Paris could have its summertime son et lumière on the Champs Elysée, and Athens its equivalent at the Acropolis, then Rome, Kit suspected, could certainly accomplish something more on the Piazza Campo de’ Fiori than mere window dressing for the next day’s bit of business.  What luck—he thought to himself—that we weren’t able to drive directly on to Positano, but instead decided to spend the night here!
Elaborate scaffolding stood at center stage just behind the statue of Giordano Bruno.  To what purpose, Kit still didn’t know—and nothing about the scaffolding itself gave him any real indication. It was obviously robust enough to handle something reasonably heavy, but not large enough to accommodate too many of whatever—or whoever—was going to sit or stand upon it.
As he looked to his far right, he saw a flatbed truck arriving through one of the side streets leading into the piazza.  On it—and surrounding some large, black, solid object that Kit couldn’t yet identify—were about a half-dozen young men.  As the truck came into clearer focus, he realized the object was a piano—a grand, no less.  So that was it:  a concert of some kind; and if a grand piano, then probably something classical.  But looking at the throngs of younger people starting to enter the piazza, he somehow doubted it.  This might well be the country that had given birth to grand opera, but young people were young people the world over.  He didn’t suppose that hundreds of young people—though beginning to look more like potential thousands—would come to the center of town on a weekday night to listen to a classical recital.
No, he decided.  It had to be something else.  But what?
Kit dressed quickly but quietly.  Daneka was still fast asleep and—he noticed for the first time—snoring.  How delightful!  he thought.  A snoring Danish mermaid.
He opened and closed the door quietly, walked the couple of flights down to the lobby, then decided to check with Reception to see whether someone might know what it was all about.  He approached the desk clerk, who looked up with a cordial smile.
Buona sera, Signore,” Kit said.
Buona sera!” the clerk answered with what Kit thought was slightly more enthusiasm than a mere exchange of greetings should warrant.
Mi dica, Signore.  Sa che cosa sucede nella piazza stasera?”  (“Tell me, sir.  Do you know what’s happening this evening on the piazza?”)
Ma si, Signore.  C’è una dimostrazione contro l’invasione.”  (“But of course, sir.  A demonstration against the invasion.”)
Contro l’invasione?” Kit asked.  “Contro che invasione?”  (“Against what invasion?”)
Ma contro l’invasione dell’Iraq.  Me ne dispiace.”  (“Against the invasion of Iraq.  Sorry.”)
Kit couldn’t believe his luck.  “Grazie, Signore.  Mille grazie!
The one night in his entire life he’s in Rome—an extraordinary bit of serendipity to begin with—and he’s going to bear witness to an antiwar demonstration!
If only I’d brought my camera, he thought wistfully.  But no.  This evening, his eyes would be his camera.  This evening, he’d make himself look and record with his mind and not with film; he’d force himself to remember—then later, when he next saw his parents, to relate—every detail of the drama he was about to witness.  This evening, he’d participate for a change, and not merely chronicle.
He walked out the front door of the hotel, turned and crossed the thirty feet of cobblestone between the hotel entrance and the piazza.  He was already being jostled by far more pedestrians than he’d seen in the same place earlier that day, though commerce was not the reason for this human tumult.  Their reason was a cause—and one to which Kit subscribed.  What they might do if they discovered he carried the passport and spoke the language of the ‘enemy’ was something he couldn’t know.  He hoped, if his identity were somehow discovered, they’d be generous enough to overlook his passport and his age and accept his show of solidarity—to accept him, simply, as one of their own.
At the same time, he hoped there’d be no flag-burnings or anti-American sloganeering.  Kit deplored patriotic displays no matter what the cause.  A part of him actually hated the Fourth of July—its excess and the refuge it afforded every scoundrel to wax bombastic about something for which most had never spent a single drop of sweat, never mind blood.  Likewise, he found the mob chorus of “USA! USA!” at international athletic competitions so repugnant, he could no longer even tune in to watch the events on television.
For the same reason, however, he hated to see flag-burnings—whether of his own stars and stripes or of any other country’s colors.  Flags, he knew, were merely a symbol.  But they symbolized the poetry and pain, the hard work and high hopes, of simple people as much as they did the military or economic might (or lack of it) of a nation.  He knew it was the simple people—above all the poor people—who were history’s waifs.  That it was they who’d died defending not a mere flag or a way of life about which they could only dream, but rather the hope that some little portion of that dream could one day be theirs; or if not theirs, then their children’s—or their children’s children’s.
In flag-burnings and sloganeering, Kit knew, the mob ignored those people and their dreams.  And so, they were twice cursed:  once to serve—to become wounded or crippled for life, possibly to die—for a cause and a way of life they could, at best, hope to enjoy the crumbs of; and a second time in being included in the general condemnation—and so, rendered mute, voiceless and every bit as villainous in their graves or in their wheelchairs as those who waged war in their names and who sent them into battle by the truckload.
Now, just a couple of dozen feet away from what was obviously a stage of some kind, Kit looked at the flatbed and thought there were much more worthwhile things one could do with a truck than haul soldiers into battle.
The half-dozen or so young men aboard the flatbed wasted no energy on banter as they prepared to lift the grand piano to the stage.  Kit heard “uno, due, tre” as they all simultaneously reached under and lifted up, moving the instrument carefully to its recently erected platform.  Let the world say what it might about Italian engineering know-how and can-do attitude towards hard work—or lack of, as the case might rather be; in this instance, both were proving to be quite up to the task.
The piano in place, the ad hoc crew of young roustabouts turned its attention to power.  Within minutes, they’d jury-rigged an electrical system for microphone and lights that put the stage in sharp relief against the piazza that surrounded it, practically invisible in its obscurity as night had indeed descended like a heavy, black curtain over Rome, over the Piazza Campo de’ Fiori, and over the demonstrators.  Incredible as it seemed to someone who lived in a city where the lights never really went out, and who’d consequently never seen the stars from street-level or even from his rooftop, Kit looked up and saw an entire panorama of them twinkling like little beacons.  At the same time, he surveyed the circumference of the piazza and remarked, in amazement, that every window had gone dark; that in each stood a candle; that from behind each, in pale reflection of the meager power each candle projected, a face—sometimes two or three or four—looked out in eager anticipation of the spectacle that was about to take place.
This, then, was the romance and the light he’d seen so often in his parents’ eyes whenever they’d spoken of their Roman moment.  And here he was, a generation and thirty-plus years later, about to drink from the same fabled fountain.
Kit felt gooseflesh rise up on his arms.  At the same time, he realized—whatever the consequences—that he was stuck.  The piazza was packed.  How they’d all gotten in so quickly was a mystery to him, but he couldn’t deny the evidence of it:  he was locked in by warm bodies.  As he looked from one face to another in the crowd, the names Rafaela, Laura, Julietta and Beatrice occurred to him again for the first time since his arrival at the airport.  He’d never seen so many gorgeous women—or men for that matter—in one place at one time.
A bearded, bespectacled—and somewhat less than gorgeous—someone or other ascended the platform and stood in front of the microphone.  “Testing, uno, due, tre,” he said, and apparently found the volume and clarity entirely satisfactory.  Then, for the obvious benefit of some of the old-timers in the crowd, he bellowed:  “Fate attenzione!  La CIA ci spia!”  (“Be careful!  The CIA’s watching us!”)
A roar went up in response.  It may have been an old Sixties chant, but it had clearly lost none of its power to electrify a crowd.  The CIA was always spying on someone or other, though in more recent times, rather less effectively.  Given the effusiveness of the roar—and Kit detected a great deal of laughter in the mix—maybe even the Italians understood this newer reality.
The speaker droned on for a bit about Irak, about Afghanistan, about Yankee imperialism, about Western imperialism—the usual stuff and fluff of antiwar demonstrations.  He introduced a few other bearded somebodies or other who read from the poems of Gabriele D’Annunzio, Alfonso Gatto, and Cesare Pavese; one or two articles from Antonio Gramsci’s Letters from Prison; translations from Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke; and finally, but from the lips of a woman Kit thought resembled a jean-clad Greek or Roman goddess more than any mortal he’d ever seen, a couple of the antiwar poems of Giuseppe Ungaretti followed by a rendering, in Italian, of three or four of the love poems of Pablo Neruda.  Leave it to the Italians, he thought, to kick off an antiwar demonstration with paeans to love.
Just as she concluded to rather too-generous applause—at least as much for the visual privilege of her reading as for the aural honor of Ungaretti’s and Neruda’s writing, Kit was certain—the first bearded, bespectacled somebody returned to the microphone.  Now, he informed the crowd, the music would begin, and he had the privilege of introducing two relatively unknown, but—at least in his opinion—highly regarded artists.  Both carried passports and spoke the language of the ‘enemy.’  The crowd booed and hissed.  But each, he reminded that same crowd, spoke for his own country’s opposition to the invasion.  The fickle Roman mob cheered.  What’s more, the speaker insisted, each did it in his own way with music and poetry that was on a par with the best antiwar lyrics ever written.  The skeptical crowd remained silent.
The first man to be introduced was as much a mystery to Kit as—he assumed—to most if not all of those present:  an Australian by the name of Eric Bogle—a squat man with a bit of a pot belly, and who wore a funny old hat.  He was accompanied by an entourage of musicians bearing various kinds of guitars, a cello, a flute, a recorder, a fiddle, a mandolin, an autoharp and a dulcimer.  One of them also wore a harmonica around his neck—Dylan-style.  Bogle himself carried a banjo and a guitar.  He laid the banjo down and stepped up to the microphone to introduce his band.
Buona sera, compagni e compagne!” he started off, his Aussie accent coming through loud and clear in a bumbled attempt at Italian which the crowd quickly warmed up to.
He gave a No Man's Land nod to his band, then started in on a song Kit recognized immediately:  The crowd was amazingly respectful, Kit thought, as many around him quietly provided ad hoc translations for the benefit of those who didn’t understand enough English to get the gist of the song.
Bogle concluded his first number to enthusiastic applause.  He put down his guitar, then picked up his banjo and announced his second number in English: And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda.  Kit had never heard of it; but by the second stanza, he was mesmerized by the simple lyrics.  Once again, many around him served as translators to others.  As Bogle approached the conclusion of the song and started in on the more familiar refrain of the original Waltzing Matilda, Kit was amazed to hear the crowd sing along with him.  A chorus of thousands of peaceful voices could be a moving thing, especially when those voices were singing in a language that was not their own.  However much he might’ve deplored America’s part in making English the de facto lingua franca of the commercial world, this was one instance in which he felt something approaching pride.
Bogle and his band finished up with a word of thanks.  The demonstrators, in return, thanked him with thunderous applause.
The next performer was a tall, wiry American, a man by the name of John McCutcheon.  Kit wondered whether the crowd would react with hostility; it did not.  Either they’d taken their host’s earlier words to heart, or McCutcheon had a reputation here, locally, that would seem to have largely escaped him at home.  He also greeted the audience with a cheerful “Buona sera” and then introduced his band on fiddle, viola, cello, guitar, mandolin, mandocello, and half a dozen other instruments.
As McCutcheon picked up his guitar and started in, Kit recognized the song instantly as one he’d grown up with: Christmas in the Trenches. The melody was hauntingly simple; the accompaniment spare and perfectly attuned to the stripped-down poignancy of the lyrics.  As for the song itself, McCutcheon had the perfect voice:  deep, unaffected; as clear as well water.  Kit felt a tight spot in his chest as he listened.  He looked around and saw tears on the cheeks of many of those in his vicinity who were listening with one ear to the singer, the other to a translator.  It was a long song, yet no one seemed to tire of it.  When McCutcheon concluded as simply as he’d begun, there was a moment of near-perfect silence, followed by the same thunderous applause that had greeted Bogle at the conclusion of his performance.
Kit wondered again at his luck:  two talented musicians who clearly didn’t just happen to be passing through at the same time looking to busk on the sidewalks of Rome.  He wondered, too, who could possibly follow them.  The demonstration was not yet at an end; that much was clear to him.  But how would it end?
Kit sensed a bit of a stirring off to the left and behind where he stood.  Someone was coming through, and the crowd’s enthusiasm for this new arrival was not only audible, but palpable.  When he was finally close enough for Kit to see a face, Kit didn’t recognize the man—middle-aged, salt and pepper beard and hair, wearing dark-framed glasses, dressed in faded jeans and a loose-fitting shirt.  Kit didn’t, however, have long to wait.
A chorus of “Antonello! Antonello!” rose from thousands of voices.  Kit was beginning to think he was in a dream.  Could it possibly be—?  The man ascended the stage and spoke a few words into the microphone.  What he said had the immediate result of quieting the crowd to near silence.  He subsequently turned and said a few private words to the emcee, then seated himself at the piano.  Opposite him sat a second musician at a synthesizer.  The two of them waited a few moments while Bogle, McCutcheon and both of their bands came back up on the stage.  Their collective re-appearance—Kit decided—was apparently the substance of whatever the man had just said to the emcee.
The still unidentified artist and his accompanist nodded to each other and smiled in that way musicians have of communicating—especially when they’re about to be transported by music.  Then the man—this Antonello—lifted his hands to the piano and played a few notes.  His partner answered after a few bars in what sounded to Kit like a synthesized hammer dulcimer, or perhaps a mandolin—he couldn’t be sure which.
Eventually, the man began to sing.
Campo de' fiori io non corro più, gli amici di ieri,…
And then Kit was sure.  It was.  It was Antonello Venditti!  And he was singing the song that took its title from this very piazza; the song that had been a rallying cry through the Sixties and Seventies for all kinds of protests; the song that had been the musical equivalent of baby’s milk to Kit in his infancy; the song that—no matter how bad their mood, how deep some passing disagreement—had always brought his parents into each other’s arms; the song that then stood for them as a reminder of better times, of bigger times and bigger issues than their temporary disagreement; the song that had, by dint of serendipity, brought Kit to request a room in a hotel overlooking this piazza so that he could share all of it, in some way, with Daneka.

“il tempo ha già sconfitto le ombre di un'età.
E gli amori, gli amori, sono proprio veri
e non ho più paura della li-ber-tà.”
The tight spot he’d felt in his chest earlier as McCutcheon had sung his song now became a hard knot of emotion.  The plaintive melody and lyrics recalling lost, carefree youth and an increasingly uncertain future threatened to overwhelm him as he suddenly felt, for the first time, what it meant to grow older and lose that gift of carefree youth.
As he first remarked how the other musicians, one by one, seemed to be picking up on the melody; as he further remarked that voices around him were starting to sing along with Venditti until the entire piazza was one mass of twenty, thirty, forty thousand singing voices; and finally, when he felt arms to either side of him slipping through his and pulling him back and forth in a human wave to the music; it and his resulting emotions no longer threatened to overwhelm him: they did overwhelm him.  As he felt warm tears running unabashedly down his cheeks, he looked at his nearest partners in this wave of human bodies and saw through smiles back to him and mouths rapturously moving to the song’s lyrics that their cheeks, too, were covered in rivers of tears.
One of them—a beautiful young girl who’d slipped her arm through his, and who apparently realized that Kit was not Italian, graciously—if unnecessarily and somewhat clumsily—began to translate for him:

Campo de’ Fiori:  I no longer run among the friends of yesterday.
Time has already conquered the shadows of an age.
Love is now for real, and I’m no longer afraid of freedom.”

Kit already knew that there are episodes in life that you take to the grave—episodes that remind you, in your death rattle, of why it was all worth it, of what it meant to be really alive, if only for those few moments.  And of why every living thing, from a thousand-year-old Redwood to the ten thousand-year-old lichen that lives upon it, will fight to the death to maintain that life, sometimes against seemingly impossible odds.  For Kit, this was one such episode.

“Ma i tuoi bambini crescono bene, rubano sempre ma non tradiscono mai.
Oh mai, oh mai.
Campo de' fiori io non corro più, sulle strade di ieri
il tempo ha già sconfitto i soldi di papà,
ma le partite stavolta sono proprio vere
e adesso ho un po' paura per la libertà.”
The young girl next to him continued to translate:

My, but your children grow well.
They may steal, but they never betray.
Campo de’ Fiori:  I no longer run along the roads of yesterday.
Time has already exhausted all of Papa’s money;
and so the games this time are for real,
and now I’m a bit anxious about liberty.”

Only one thing lacked, and it occurred to him that he hadn’t thought about her in an hour.  The thing keeping this moment from being a perfect souvenir was that Daneka was not present to share it with him.

I tuoi bambini io li vedo crescono bene,
rubano sempre ma non tradiscono mai.
Oh mai, oh mai.
Adesso ho un po' paura per la li-ber-tà

I see your children growing up well.
They may steal, but they never betray.
And now, I am a bit anxious about liberty.”

He wondered if she still slept, and looked up again at the buildings surrounding the piazza.  As before, he noticed that all of the windows were dark except for the dim flicker of candles burning in each.  He then looked to where he imagined their hotel room to be.  Light shown through a single pair of French doors—faintly, behind gauze-like curtains.  In dark silhouette behind those same curtains, and in sharp relief against the light behind her, stood a woman.  Although the silhouette revealed to him nothing of the face, Kit could make out immediately from her curves, from her height, from the way her hair fell to her shoulders, to whom that silhouette belonged.
She stood, unmoved and unmoving, not part of any wave.  Not part of any wave at all, except her own.
Chapter 40

The demonstration concluded without incident.  Kit exchanged quick kisses on the cheek with each of his two immediate neighbors.  The one who’d just provided him with a translation of Venditti’s song let her lips linger a bit longer than mere Continental custom might’ve dictated, and Kit was acutely aware of it.  He was equally aware of her breasts, now pressing against his chest in a way that suggested to him in the afterglow of the demonstration why Rome was called la città eternal—but could, just as easily—he mused—be called la città materna.  With her lingering lips and breasts that seemed to want to ponder where they could best press, she, too, apparently meant to remain eternal—at least in one man’s mind.
Her lips strayed from one cheek as he rotated his face to give her the other.  Halfway through that rotation, however, they stopped and found his lips—and lingered longer.
She was gorgeous, and Kit suddenly felt himself caught in chasm:  a hiatus of no happy exit.  The woman he loved was not more than two-hundred yards away—nothing in real distance, although he wondered how really far removed they were, one from the other.  This other woman, this beautiful stranger, had her lips on his.  Roman lips—like rose petals;  lips of almost unfathomable fullness; lips that seemed to dissolve, then resolve, blending into his until he felt that his own were merely an obstruction.
He loved Daneka’s mouth.  He loved what she could do with it and the words that came out of it; the expressiveness of it; occasionally, the wantonness of it.  But hers were Scandinavian lips that could be smart, terse, indicative, stentorian, imperative.
These were Roman lips.  These lips dwelt in the conditional tense and in the subjunctive mood:  What if—?  If only—.  If one might—.  If we could—.  The conditional and subjunctive, Kit knew, were a danger zone.  He took stock of the situation:  he was susceptible at this moment and he knew it.  Rome would not have him, not tonight.  He broke the kiss.
Come ti chiami?”  (“What’s your name?”)  he asked.  She let go of his lips, but not of him.  Instead, she leaned her lower body harder into his.
Her mouth slipped back from Kit’s and found his ear.  “Mi chiamano Afrodite,” she breathed.    (“They call me ‘Aphrodite.’”)
Kit wondered whether he was hallucinating and whether the whole last hour—and now this woman—were merely a dream.  This Roman goddess of love could, he knew, easily tempt him into an Elysium of her own making.  But he was already in love—and with another woman.
Dunque, Afrodite, La ringrazio per tutto,”  (“In that case, I thank you for everything.”)  Kit said and gently disengaged himself.
Her hampster’s pout and withdrawing breasts felt to him, at that moment, like the contents of a canteen poured into the sand before the eyes of a man crawling out of the desert.  But Kit had willed it.  Just before he let her go, he kissed her softly on the forehead and hoped the gesture would help to remove any shame she might’ve felt at his rejection.
He made his way back through the dispersing crowd to the hotel, took the elevator up to the fourth floor, unlocked the door and entered.  Daneka stood waiting for him with her back to the piazza.