Given our history, Vita, I’m aware you may decide not to read this. I turned seventy this past May, though I don’t expect you to care. For me this long-anticipated leap year (mmxx, as the Romans would have written it) has brought unwelcome news. The rest of humankind advances bravely toward its future while I stew in sickness, and in my own nostalgia, as everybody warned would happen at this time of life. It’s the craven need for absolution that has taken me by surprise. My thoughts are tuned ever more to Kitty, and to you. I am not a religious man, yet here I am, stuck in religious mode, coming to you as a supplicant.
I have something to propose, but I need to know you’re still there, that you might be prepared to hear me out.
Since I broke off contact, I’ve thought about you often. Mostly unkindly. But there – I have thought about you.
You’ve timed your latest entreaty well, which I’m sure is no coincidence. I’m crawling towards the abyss of early middle age myself. In a few months I will turn forty, as you would know. I read your email and was reminded that you’re one of the strangest, most significant things that ever happened to me. I don’t just mean the money. It was the quality of your attention. The generous yet questionable nature of it. Nobody has ever been so invested in me making good on whatever raw talent I once possessed – not even my parents, for their love was always unconditional. Yours came with strings attached.
My dear, your reply is more than I deserve. It made me light-headed, poised somewhere between apprehension and happiness.
I’ll be clear about my proposal. Lately, I have begun excavating my memories of Kitty, a process that has been more than cathartic: it has been purgative, purifying. It has taken me a long time to look directly at all the images of her lodged in the undulations of my brain—for years I was stuck on a single, painful frame of her standing at the rim of Vesuvius, a fumarole within its core gently steaming behind her. That was the ending. In writing about her I am finally able to think instead of our beginning. All I need now is a receptive reader.
Perhaps you might like to do something similar for me and dig around in your own past, get rid of whatever it is that blocks you. Forgive me for saying it, but time is running out for you too. I have waited patiently until now for you to fulfill your early artistic promise. Under the right conditions, I believe it is still within your power to alchemize that potential into actual art. The rewards will be worth it; you know they always are with me. I am, if nothing else, an expert listener, something else we have in common.
My last voluntary contact with you, seventeen years ago – you could not have forgotten – was a letter saying I never wanted to hear from you again. A request you chose to ignore. I could not afford to vanish entirely, and risk losing those bonus cheques with your spidery signature that arrived every two years like clockwork. So there was never a clean break, you always knew where to find me. Once the cheques stopped arriving, exactly ten years after my graduation, the birthday cards continued, asking if I was flourishing.
You’re not of a generation to have these reminders automated. I imagine you still keep a paper diary, ordered from the alumni association of our alma mater, with a dark maroon cover and the crest discreetly embossed on the top right corner. Only those in the know would recognise it: three open books, the Latin for ‘truth’ split into syllables across their pages.
These things mattered to you a great deal, I mean the signifiers of a person’s educational lineage. I recall your college class ring – class of ’71? ’72? – most clearly. I’d seen those clunky gold rings on the pinkies of my male classmates, markers of East Coast boarding schools, modern-day royal seals. They were useful as beacons of what kind of boy to avoid. On your hand the sight of the ring filled me with pity. Those boys were parading their power in the present, but you were still clinging to old symbols, old associations, to tell you who you were.
I understand what you’re asking of me. Mutual confession, the inside view.
I’m open to the idea, but for reasons of my own.
How wonderful to get you in stereo again, Vita. Rudely, I’ve not asked the basics. Are you well? Are your parents well? Are you still living in Mudgee, on the olive farm?
I write this from a very humid Boston. I have hardly left my air-conditioned townhouse this summer. Usually I escape to the house in Vermont, but the various commitments of dying— of what it does not matter—have kept me sweating it out here instead.
The only respite from the heat outside comes late in the evening. If my energy permits I go walking on the Common, past the illuminated softball fields, all the way up to the spray pool at Frog Pond. A breeze comes off the river, or from the sea, it’s hard to tell. Almost every night there’s music drifting across the grass from the Bandstand.
Yesterday evening I felt so revived by my walk that I decided to treat myself to a late restaurant dinner. Since it’s rare for me to have an appetite these days, I no longer mind dining out alone. The waitstaff were extra attentive. The sommelier spent time taking me through the cellar offerings. I couldn’t manage dessert but I did have a glass of Sauternes, my favorite, as you know.
It made me think of our very first dinner together. Do you remember? I had ordered a bottle of Château d’Yquem to go with the warm pear sabayon. It was produced on Montaigne’s family estate in Bordeaux, though in his day they amassed their fortune not from sweet wine but from salted fish, similar to the local delicacy Kitty and I used to eat in new Pompei.
You mentioned that you happened to be reading Montaigne’s ‘On Cannibals’ in your social theory class, his reflections on a long-ago tribe’s tradition of roasting and eating their enemies, even sending portions of the meal to absent friends and family members.
‘Jungle takeout!’ I laughed, and you looked uncomfortable. Montaigne, you told me, was the father of cultural relativism and recommended we suspend judgment of those cannibals. You paraphrased him: while we quite rightly judge their faults we are blind to our own.
Even then it gave me a little chill of recognition.
The sommelier arrived at our table, and poured a neat spiral of wine for you to taste. I must have bored you to tears, going on about the two types of Botrytis cinerea infection in the grapes of the Bordeaux region. Gray rot, which ruins the grapes, and noble rot, which partially raisins the grapes and gives the dessert wine its concentrated flavor. Yet you made me feel as if it were the most interesting thing you’d ever heard.
Partially raisined is an apt description of my own appearance these days. I would like to think that, as with all humans who have not been blessed with good looks, my own rot is noble rather than gray. I have had less to lose to old age.
I am indeed still in Mudgee. My parents have passed away (cancer, heartbreak). I see your old habits of surveillance die hard, but I am almost flattered by such conscientious snooping, for who else would care?
Our first dinner in old Boston. You ordered me the halibut, made a fuss of telling me that its name derived from being eaten on ancient holy days, and it arrived before me glistening with tarragon beurre blanc. I had to disguise how little I liked it.
You were bald, or at least balding, or maybe only going grey. Tall. A mild squint. Or am I remembering you as uglier than is reasonable? Back then I saw you as nothing but middle-aged: I was looking at the world as a 21-year-old does, in thrall to my own immortality.
Near the end of the meal, you recounted the story of your last visit to your father in Vermont before his death, when you were still at college yourself. How you’d known that he loved you because he left a glass of milk in the fridge for your midnight snack, as he had when you were younger.
I’d wondered why you couldn’t pour it yourself, whether this was a tic peculiar to your relationship with him or some important clue to the entire culture. America and its traditions still mystified me, even in the fall of my senior year, when I could no longer claim to be a fresh transplant from other parts of the New World.
‘Why do adults drink so much milk here?’ I asked. In my dining hall, I’d watched grown men drink glass after glass of milk at dinner to wash down heaped plates of fried food.
But it was the wrong question, a rare slip-up for me. I was the queen of questions, unfailingly pitching them at the proper emotional register. Questions as presents to be opened.
You stirred in your seat, and a waiter appeared like a wraith to replace the linen napkin that had dropped to the floor. You would have preferred that I ask about your father. So I did.
I didn’t have to fake my interest – I was interested, in your father, in you, in everything and everyone around me. Anything you can say about America is true, someone once said. You can never get to the bottom of the place, you can never pin the people down. Whatever it is you’re up to here, Royce, you are still true to type in that regard. And so am I – an ever curious observer.
A touching detail, the glass of milk my father used to pour for me. I had forgotten it. There, you see, we can fill in each other’s gaps and somewhere between us may lie the truth of ourselves.
Our memories are always imperfect, Kitty used to say. We have to leave ourselves clues—photos, scrapbooks, journals—or our very own pasts become inaccessible, though we lived through every moment. What hope, then, of deciphering somebody else’s past, let alone the history of an ancient civilization? She didn’t mean by this that we shouldn’t try, but she did understand that in her work she would always be on the losing side of the battle against oblivion.
In the mail today was a save-the-date for my college class’s fiftieth reunion next year. Fifty years. The received wisdom is that you should only attend a reunion if you’ve been a spectacular success or a spectacular failure, these being the states most attractive to others. The worst is to get stuck in the middling no-man’s-land. That wisdom has held true in my experience, at least until my forty-fifth reunion a few years ago, when people seemed to have come full circle. They no longer cared what they had or hadn’t made of their lives. Wealth was hardly mentioned—the sheen of it had worn off. Conversations were open, honest. Even those who had previously turned their backs on their college experience now felt wistful about those years.
At the Friday night barbecue several classmates, newly bereaved, asked my advice on how to live alone. We were being served lamb koftas by undergraduates working the reunions, just as you once did. In the courtyard lit with lanterns, I yearned for Kitty. Each time somebody tapped me on the shoulder I held my breath and hoped it might be her forever youthful ghost.
All I could recommend to my classmates as a tonic for loneliness was travel, but if you’re not used to it, the vertigo of being in a strange place can make you feel as if you’ve paid for a seat in the boat on the River Styx and are heading toward the underworld’s marshlands. Journeys need a point, a narrative arc. I was always traveling to be near Kitty, or to catch a glimpse of you.
I won’t make it to my reunion next year. I’ve been agonizing over what to write as my personal entry for the yearbook. It will be my last message to my peers, yet when I think of what to say I keep lapsing into cliché. If I submit anything at all, perhaps it should be a sketch I once made of a mosaic skeleton on the wall of a villa outside Pompeii. The skeleton is reclining with a lurid, toothy grin as if at a feast, cup full. The Latin inscription reads Enjoy your life. Which made Kitty and me laugh at the time. How self-evident! But it is the only good advice the old have to give.