Gargoyle 6cover drawing by Zenon Slawinskipublication date 6/14/1977
"Rome, they say, is the world, and on a day like this I believe it," said
Linda Harding, smiling and looking beautiful in the soft spring dusk. She
was an executive in a cosmetics firm, and Alan Scott, seated across the
cafe table, thought her an admirable walking advertisement for her business,
Her makeup was exactly right, noticeable but somehow not obtrusive; her
lips were as pale as wheat, her nails were painted beige. But of course
the dark helped; in broad daylight she showed her age-the skin stretched
tight across the cheekbones as if she had had plastic surgery. And with
a shock Alan wondered if she had.
"Yes, a perfect day," he said. "Time seems to melt here.
The Ancient World, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the present–all of
them seem to merge, I’d forgotten how uncanny it can be; it’s been almost
ten years since I was in Rome."
They had taken a leisurely stroll through the Borghese Gardens, then walked
down the hill to this sidewalk cafe on Via Veneto. Later they were going
on to dinner at a restaurant in Trastevere recommended by one of Mrs. Harding’s
friends as "new"–though it had been run by the same family for
several generations. (Her friend had meant, of course, that it had only
recently been "discovered" by the international crowd..)
"How lovely it is!" she said. "I’m sorry I’m leaving so
soon. But it’s been fun running into you. Isn’t it incredible that we can’t
remember?" She laughed. "Isn’t it completely incredible?"
"Must you leave so soon?" he asked, forgetting for a moment
that he was leaving himself, though in a different direction. "Are
you sure you’ll be safe?" She was hiring a car the day after tomorrow
and driving, alone, up the Ligurian coast, the Riviera dei Fiori, to the
"Oh, completely safe, Alan. I’ve done it before. I feel safer here
than I do on East Fifty-seventh Street. They have a good system here. I
leave the car at the agency’s branch office in Ventimiglia and then take
the train to Cannes. I’ll spend a few days there and then a week or so
in Paris. I think I’ll skip London this time. But your trip sounds so much
more thrilling than mine!"
"It’ll be very new for me," he said. "But it’s something
I’ve always wanted to do. And I’m hardly getting any younger."
"Who is?" There was a sudden serious look on her face. "I’m
sure you’ll have a marvelous time."
In a few days he was going to Naples to catch a cruise ship for Greece,
the Agean Islands and, finally, a few days in Istanbul, which he expected
to find "interesting" but which actually interested him less
than Greece. (He had never been to Greece but he imagined that as the ship
docked in the Piraeus, he would be able to see the whole of Athens–the
Acropolis, the Parthenon–down to the smallest detail.) He wished he might
go on to the Levant, Israel, Egypt; there were so many places he wanted
to go to, but his funds were severely limited.
"You were thinking about your trip," Linda said.
He smiled. "You’re right–but it’s unwise to look too far ahead." They
had finished their drinks. "How about a little walk down to Piazza
Barberini? It’s only a few steps away."
"Oh, I think not, Alan. I think I’ll go back to the hotel and freshen
up a bit, take a little rest. Besides, it’s far too early to go to dinner
in Rome. Why not pick me up later? About nine, say?"
* * *
They had met the day before at the same sidewalk cafe and had recognized each
other instantly, though neither could remember the other’s name. Nor could
they remember where or how they had met before. Certainly it had been in
New York, so it must have been long ago–Alan hadn’t lived there for more
than fifteen years. But where in New York? And under what circumstances?
Perhaps through Alan’s ex-wife? "No," Linda said, "I have
never known a woman named Melanie in my life–except of course, for the
one in Gone With The Wind." Then perhaps through one of her
husbands–she was twice divorced, she told him. No, Alan had never heard
of either of them. Perhaps at a party? But whose party? Where had it been?
It was a mystery they couldn’t solve, and finally they laughed about it.
But despite Alan’s laughter, he was disturbed.. He hated to think about
the years he had lived in New York or about his divorce (suddenly, without
warning, Melanie had left him for, of all people, a gambler from Las Vegas),
which had sent him fleeing headlong from the city, as if it had been burning,
to a post teaching French and Italian at a boys’ prep school in Maine.
At first his self-imposed exile had been hell for him, but gradually he
adjusted to it. He had quarters in a pretty white clapboard house owned
by Mrs. Stickney, an old, lonely, and very kind woman, and it was probably
her kindness, most of all, that brought about his adjustment. Now he was
not many years removed from retirement. Last December, however, he had
a heart attack and was hospitalized for two weeks. (Struggling through
the bitter cold and the deep snow, Mrs. Stickney came to see him every
day.) His doctor told him the attack had been relatively mild but advised
him strongly to take several months of complete rest–there might be a
second, far more serious attack unless he did.
Following the doctor’s advice, Alan secured sabbatical leave for the second
semester, and for the remaining winter months he did nothing but rest and
read, under the watchful eye of Mrs. Stickney. But when the snow began
to melt, when signs of spring began to appear in the bleak landscape, his
thoughts turned to Italy and to Greece. The Mediterranean world, so old
but ever self-renewing, might lift his flagging spirits. And though it
would demolish his bank account, he decided to take this trip. It never
occurred to him that he might meet someone like Linda Harding, someone
he liked so much.
* * *
Still exhilarated by the good time (and the good food) they had had the night
before at the "new" restaurant in Trastevere, the following afternoon
they went together to Piazza di Spagna and along Via Margutta, both of them
in a joyous mood. "Rome is the world," Alan said at one point.
"Yes," Linda said. "Too bad we have to leave it so soon." There
was a troubled silence between them and then she stopped and faced him. "I
know how badly you want to go to Greece, Alan, but you could change your
plans and come along with me."
He stared at her. Was she serious?
She read his mind. "0h, I mean it! I think we’d get along quite well.
After all, you could go to Greece some other time."
"Well . . ."
"Anyway, I’m going to leave you now and get a taxi and go back to
the hotel. You must have things you want to do alone. Call me if you like.
I’m leaving early in the morning."
He knew she was giving him an opportunity to consider her proposition
and after they found a taxi and she was gone, he stood for a few minutes,
startled and bewildered. What was he to do? All at once he wanted to go
with her–wanted it desperately. The loneliness of his life since his divorce
struck him like a slap in the face.
Then why not? Why not do it? As she said, he could go to Greece another
time. Why not? Why not do what he wanted to do? A passerby smiled at him
and he realized he was smiling himself. Yes, do it! Do it! And he set off
for American Express to cancel his trip.
But at the door he stopped in his tracks. His heart sank. What was he
thinking of? What a fool he was even to consider such a thing! It was too
late for him to embark on an involvement like this. If only he had been
ten years younger! If only she had been!
No, no, he would go to Greece and from Istanbul he would fly home–to
Maine, to the security Of Mrs. Stickney’s pretty house, but also to the
tedium of trying to teach his increasingly uninterested and unmanageable
students. He would guard his health, and, if the fates allowed he would
face his retirement alone. It was too late.
He awoke early the next morning and dressed hurriedly, in order to say goodbye
to Linda– he hadn’t contacted her the night before. As he was leaving the
Savoia, he saw an old woman selling violets and he bought a bunch. "Grazie
tante, Signore!" exclaimed the woman, for he had extravagantly overpaid.
When he reached the Excelsior, Linda was just coming out, followed by
a porter carrying her luggage. "Good morning, Alan," she said,
no expression at all on her face. "So you go to Greece."
He nodded, handing her the violets. "This is a parting gift, deeply
"Oh, Alan, how sweet of you!" She held the flowers to her lips. "How
very sweet . . ." Then she got into the car and after she started
the motor, she said, "Do have a magnificent trip! Ciao. Arrivederci." And
she drove off.
As he watched the car move away, Alan, schoolmaster that he was, said
to himself ‘ "Addio, my darling, not arrivederci. I’m
absolutely certain we shall never meet again."