The Room Where Elizabeth Bishop Slept
Flavia Banti had just returned from her father's funeral in Rome, and to her surprise she missed him less now that he was dead than when he was alive.
She was fifty-seven, and on a rare good day she could shed eight years from her age. She held a chair in Comparative Literature at Columbia University, wrote literary criticism, and translated Italian classics into English. She was respected; some said she was brilliant. She was miserable.
One week after the funeral, a cab drove her through the big iron gate of the famed artists' retreat, and a gothic mansion surrounded by smaller buildings came into view. The place had once been the estate of a millionaire, but it reminded Flavia of the landscape in a Grimm's fairy-tale. In the office, the secretary gave her a key and introduced her to a man who was going to show her to her room.
"Welcome," he said. "I'm Diego."
His hair was cropped short, and he wore army pants and a loose shirt with sleeves rolled over bulging biceps covered with tattoos. To Flavia this was the sloppy uniform of middle-aged adolescents with artistic pretensions that she disliked even among her students. The smile on Diego's face was too obstinate, and she refused his insistent joviality.
"Ready when you are," she said, before grabbing her suitcase and following him out the door.
"You're a translator," said Diego. "What are you working on?"
"Giacomo Leopardi's Thoughts."
"I'm afraid I don't know him."
"I'm afraid few do," she said. "He was born in the wrong country, and in the wrong century."
On the way to the room Diego went over rules and regulations. The house resembled that in Hansel and Gretel, but made with stale confectionery and cake. Diego motioned for Flavia to be quiet as they climbed the creaky stairs.
"The room where Elizabeth Bishop slept," Diego said, after closing the door. She could tell he had expected her to erupt with joy.
The room was a shabby affair, dark, with a stained blue carpet, a small desk, and an iron bed. Flavia opened the three doors against one wall and discovered they were all closets.
She said, "Where is Elizabeth Bishop's bathroom?"
"Down the hallway," he said. "You'll share it with the two other residents of the house. Adam and Jack, a screenwriter and a novelist. Great guys."
She was past the age for sharing bathrooms, let alone sharing one with two men she did not know. In the office the secretary told her there was no other room available. Flavia was ready to leave, but the next train was not until morning, and her brother and his girlfriend were arriving in New York that night from Rome. She had offered them her small apartment for the month she was going to be gone. She had done it to please her father and placate his worry for his reckless son.
Now she was trapped.
She was furious with the colleague from the Creative Writing department who had convinced her to apply for a residency. She was furious with the committee that had admitted her. She was furious with her penniless brother always in need of a place to stay. She was furious with her father for dying. She was furious with Mark because she could not let go of him. And she was furious with herself because this was her life, and she knew she could not blame anybody else.
Dinner was served in the main house. The carved wood furnishing of the dining room was gloomy, all pretensions gone astray. There were about twenty people, their age ranging from twenty to sixty-five. The spark in their eyes was a mix of ambition, envy, and expectation. She dismissed the cordiality that greeted her. She was introduced to Adam and Jack, the two other guests residing in her house. Adam was a small and wiry man in his early forties, but Jack was a hulk of over six feet, close to her in age, with a huge stomach overflowing his ragged pants. He was so large and unpolished that she dreaded having to share the bathroom with him.
For all the friendliness, the pecking order was strictly observed. The most prominent writer—a fat woman with the confidence to match her weight—presided at the head of the table, with Diego in attendance to refill her plate. The guests deemed more deserving sat adjacent to her, and the rest were dispersed randomly at the far end.
Flavia glanced at the buffet. Some effort had gone into its presentation, but not quite enough. It was cafeteria food with an attitude. There was vegetable lasagna, lamb and roasted potatoes. Salad seemed the safest choice, and she helped herself to some.
The appeal of the place was clear to her: the known came for adulation, the-up-and-coming for prestige and connections, and the young and hopefuls for free meals and affirmation. She sat between a painter from Germany obsessed with giving orange the place it deserved in the history of art, and a playwright working on a drama about Seneca's life.
"Twelve hours is pretty long for a play," said Flavia, turning from her meager salad to the playwright. "I guess the audience is not one of your concerns."
"The play dictates the length, not the audience," said the woman.
"So you're just a scribe," Flavia said.
"In a way," said the woman, giving the thought serious consideration.
Jack was sitting across from them. He kept to himself. His head was bent over his plate. Flavia could not finish her salad.
The German painter turned to her and said, "What brings you here?"
"I needed a place to stay so that my brother could have my apartment to himself," she said.
"That's ridiculous," said the painter with a thunderous laugh.
"I agree," she said, but of all the reasons for being there it seemed the least preposterous.
After dinner, it took her a long time to wash. The bathroom seemed clean, but she could not be sure, and so she performed acrobatics to prevent her skin from touching any surface. When she returned to the room, she flopped down on the bed. It was too early to sleep, and she could not focus enough to read, so she leafed through some literature about the history of the colony that she found on the nightstand. She heard Jack hauling himself up the stairs, and then a door slam. He moved around in the adjacent room; then he started talking. She could not make out his words, and she lay in the dark listening to the modulations of his voice. After silence returned, she slipped out and went quietly down the stairs.
The light was on in the small kitchen on the ground floor.
"Hello," said Adam, peeking out.
"I need something to eat. Any suggestions?"
He motioned for her to follow him into the kitchen, and she was relieved to find bread and cheese. They sat at the small table, and he poured her a glass of red wine.
"Food is not one of the draws of this place," he said.
"It's best not to dwell on the draws of this place."
"I came here to get away from my work, but all I have been doing is discussing the movie business," Adam said. "Everybody wants advice on writing a screenplay or getting a novel adapted for the screen. It's worse than being in Hollywood." He paused, worried. "I hope you don't want to be a screenwriter too?"
"I don't want to be a screenwriter. I don't want to be Elizabeth Bishop. I don't want to be here. I don't want to be who I am. And I don't even want to be somebody else," she said, biting into a piece of cheese with the force required for a steak.
Her ferocity startled him. "Right. You just wanted something to eat," he said.
"What's wrong with the guy upstairs?"
"Nothing. He's just quiet and reserved."
"I heard him talk out loud in his room," she said.
"He calls his son at night to read him a story before bedtime," he said, and left without saying goodnight.
When she returned to her room, she was restless and did the one thing she had promised herself not to do: she phoned Mark. He did not answer. He was probably busy with his wife. Mark taught philosophy at the same university. He was ten years younger than Flavia, and they had been involved before he had decided he wanted a child and had married a pretty girl almost half his age. His changed circumstances did not seem to him to be an impediment to their continued involvement, but their ideas differed as to what this involvement entailed. Flavia demanded emotional engagement, but Mark stayed willfully disengaged.
Sleep did not come until dawn, and it was too late to bring relief. She woke up at noon. The silence was eerie, and the grounds were deserted. In the main house she found a lunchbox with her name on it. The moist bread of the tuna sandwich seemed to be sweating, and the two chocolate chip cookies crumbled at the touch. She left the contents of the lunchbox in the refrigerator in case Adam and Jack wanted them, keeping only an apple.
It was a mild and sunny May day, and she walked down the road leading into town. A horse track was a short distance away, and she paused to observe a few kids jumping. She had been a fine rider herself but—unlike her father—the demands of work had made it impossible for her to continue. Her stepmother had burst into laughter when, two years earlier, she had announced her intention of using all her savings to replace her father's horse with a more agile animal.
"Giving your eighty-four year-old father a more agile horse would be like sending him on a vacation with a twenty-year-old escort," her stepmother had said, only strengthening Flavia's resolve to go ahead with the plan.
On one of her visits to Rome she had consulted with a trainer, made the necessary arrangements, and finally presented her father with an exuberant mare. Her father was not demonstrative, but Flavia knew he was pleased from the renewed enthusiasm he took in his daily riding routine, which he kept until the last day of his life when—before jumping an obstacle in the ring—the horse shook him off its back, killing him instantly.
The town was small, and Flavia took fifteen minutes to walk along the main street that ran across it. The usual shops sold the usual brands. Among the pervasive sameness she was able to find a bakery that served decent coffee. She ordered a sandwich with melted cheese and vegetables. It was oversized and—though not unpalatable—the taste was lost in the abundance of ingredients. There was always too much of everything, she thought. Too much paper wrapped around gifts, too many bags to carry groceries, too much air conditioning or heat, too much rush, too much ambition, too much hope and joviality. And for all this abundance food was no less bland, homes were no more comfortable, life was no more meaningful, and despair and loneliness were no less palpable.
She waved at the waitress. "Can you turn the air conditioning down?"
"I'll see what I can do," the waitress said.
"You're making the second mistake I made. You go away in search of something and all you discover is what you've left behind," her mother had told her thirty years before, to dissuade her from moving to the United States. Her mother had done the reverse. She had married Flavia's father and moved to Italy from Boston.
"What was the first mistake?" Flavia asked.
"Thinking nobody equals your father," her mother said.
Her parents had divorced when she was five years old, and her mother—unlike her father—had never remarried.
As a young girl Flavia had made up stories about her father for her friends: fabulous trips they had been on together, and wonderful gifts he had given her. She did not do it to impress them. She did it for herself. Her father was handsome, elegant and brilliant, and what he lacked in warmth, care, and devotion she filled in with her imagination. But whenever her mother got wind of these tales, she confronted her.
"Don't make him into something he is not. Don't lie to yourself," her mother said, as Flavia covered her ears and flew into a rage.
To the end of her father's life Flavia had blamed his inattention on the demands of others, whether it be her stepmother or her brother. She could not accept that despite her efforts he showed little interest in her.
"I am proud of you. I wish it mattered. I wish it was enough," her mother always said to her.
But her mother knew better than anyone that no love can make up for the one we're lacking.
Years later, after her mother had been diagnosed with cancer, she had said, "It won't be as bad as when your father left." She had said it without bitterness or anger, and not without humor. It amused her to repeat it, especially after having undergone some debilitating treatment. "It's not as bad as when my husband left," she would say, and nobody knew what to say in response. And at the end, she grabbed the doctor's arm to ask, "Why don't you speak to me in English?" The doctor did not speak English, Flavia explained. They were in Rome, and people spoke Italian here.
Dinner was the only meal at the colony where attendance was mandatory. The man sitting to Flavia's right was a poet working on a collection of sonnets all beginning and ending with the same line.
"How do you choose which work to translate?" the poet asked her.
"The author must have been dead for at least fifty years," Flavia said, shifting the overcooked vegetables on her plate with her fork.
"A measure to ensure the lasting value of the work, I suppose."
"And a precaution against running into the author and not being able to enjoy the work any longer."
"Oh," said the poet.
A young woman returned after refilling her plate, and took the one empty seat next to Flavia. She announced with great fanfare that the prominent writer at the head of the table had agreed to read her novel, and might give it a blurb.
"A burp?" Flavia said.
"A blurb," said the novelist, resolute in her enthusiasm.
"It's one and the same, really," said Flavia.
The novelist was affronted. "Why are you so bitter?"
"In America you are supposed to be Mary Poppins," said Flavia, holding up a depleted carrot. "Mary Poppins is positive. Mary Poppins finds an element of fun in every job. Mary Poppins gets along and loves everyone. But I am not Mary Poppins."
"Mary Poppins doesn't scream into the phone that she wants to speak to a fucking human being and not a recording," said Adam. He had overheard her screaming on her cell phone that morning.
"Nobody is holding you here. You're free to leave if you don't like it," said the novelist.
"But I am also free to stay and criticize it," said Flavia.
Jack, sitting across the table, was observing her. She waved her fingers at him, but his grave expression was unyielding.
It was exhilarating to be disliked. It took no effort. All you had to do was call things by their real name. She was free of the deception and lies required by the desire to please. Mark believed that her compulsion for confrontation was as demanding a master as the need to be agreeable. For all his brilliance, Mark—like everybody else—was uneasy with dissent.
"I worked too hard for a B," a student once told her.
"I don't grade the effort, but the quality of the work," she had said, ending the conversation.
She refused to be corrupted. She was generous with her time, but not with grades.
The Dean had recently summoned her to his office.
"There is a widespread feeling among students that you are too demanding," he said.
"I am a professor. I get paid to be demanding."
"You have strong opinions and you're outspoken. Some perceive you as negative. You need to be more cautious."
Flavia's eyes widened. "My only obligation is to do my job in a professional manner, not to garner consensus," she said.
"Do me a favor, think this over," said the Dean, as he showed her to the door.
"The land of the free," she said with a smirk, and walked out.
But after thinking it over she had to admit that something had eroded in her. There was a new edge to her dissent. Defiance was tinged with discontent. She had exhausted her personal fund of compassion. Her students now seemed to her demanding and pampered customers she had little interest in indulging.
"You antagonize everyone," Mark had said after she reported her conversation with the Dean.
"I refuse to lie."
"Nobody is asking you to lie, just to be a little more accommodating."
"I should give students a grade they don't deserve? Praise work that I believe is worthless? Exchange pleasantries. Agree with whatever is being said. Keep my opinions to myself. And exude cheerfulness with everyone."
"That's not what I'm saying."
"Then what are you saying? Please tell me since you have all the answers."
"I don't have all the answers. But you don't like the answers I have."
It was dark outside when she came back to her room. Leopardi's Pensieri was open on the desk next to a laptop. She read the first paragraph, but she was unable to carry the meaning of one language into another.
The cell phone rang. "You called last night," Mark said. He was in a good mood.
"You're just an idea, Mark," she said as if he had interrupted her thoughts. "And I hold on to it so that when I pass a man's clothing store I have someone to buy for."
She hung up knowing he would not call back. He could take her or leave her, and she could do neither.
Dazed, she lay on the bed with her eyes closed. Jack's voice reached her from across the wall, its variations in speed and tone a soothing melody beyond words.
When all was silent again, she got up, flicked the light on, and sat at the desk. She leafed through the book, skimming it, until she came to a passage that read, "Nothing is more rare in the world than a person who is habitually bearable." Language had returned to her, and the immersion in the work of a great mind stirred her with unspoiled joy. The feeble glow of dawn seeping through the window, and a bird chirping outside reminded her of the arrival of day. She massaged her eyes, slipped into bed, and fell asleep.
Her interaction with the other guests was limited to dinner. She often ran into Adam in the kitchen of their house where they both went for a snack at night. But after their first encounter, they had both refrained from speaking. Then one night, she was boiling water for tea and he turned to her.
"Why Leopardi's Thoughts? What is its appeal?" he asked.
She sat at the table dipping a tea bag into a cup of water.
"It's an implacable investigation into the nature of human relationships and their universal governing principle: selfishness," she said.
"It will not make Mary Poppins' reading list," he said.
"It will not make most reading lists," she said.
"All the more worthwhile that you're translating it," he said.
She raised her teacup in his direction. "Thank you," she said.
On her way to the room she passed Jack in the hallway, and they nodded. There was something inaccessible about him that seemed worthy of respect. She did not mind that he kept his distance. All she wanted from him was to hear his voice at bedtime.
Slowly she settled into a routine, working through the night and sleeping until noon. To her surprise, time went by no slower and no faster than it always did. She took daily walks into town for coffee and lunch, and on the way back she stopped at the horse track to watch the riders. Sometimes she ventured into the stables to hear the horses' neighs and smell the hay. She pictured her father, leaning forward on the horse, getting it ready to jump until the animal gave a sudden jerk, pushed its front legs into the ground, and shook him off. He must have had a last few fleeting thoughts. Did he think of her? Did he remember the horse had been her gift? She summoned all the imagination she had left. She needed it to believe that her father had been thinking about her before his death.
Alone in her room in the evening, she waited for Jack to call his son. As soon as she heard his voice, she lay on the bed and closed her eyes. It was the best part of the day.
The topic at dinner was the Pulitzer Prize, which the prominent writer referred to as the Pewlitzer Prize to everyone's delight.
"It's meaningless. They never come up with a creative choice," said the prominent writer, cutting a piece of meat.
"They might as well give it to Philip Roth every year, even when he doesn't have a book out," said the young novelist, eager to concur.
Flavia settled her fork down. "They should change the rules and give it to Hermann Broch. He deserves it and he's dead. Nobody will be upset," she said, loud enough to be heard by everyone. "I read he was a guest here which adds to his credentials."
"Never heard of him," said the prominent writer, washing her food down with a glass of wine.
"Broch was an Austrian writer," said Adam, hesitating. "He immigrated to the United States at the outbreak of the Second World War. He's considered one of the giants of Modernism."
Nobody was interested. Jack alone was attentive, but as usual he did not say anything.
"You think of yourself as poets and writers and not only have you never read Hermann Broch, but you don't even know who he is and have no interest in finding out," said Flavia, indignant.
"We've had enough of your European snobbery," said the prominent writer.
"Ignorance, not European snobbery, should elicit your contempt. Literature would be better served by it," said Flavia.
"Do you enjoy provoking people or is it only a way of calling attention to yourself?" the poet asked.
"A mix of both," Flavia said.
The conversation swiftly drifted to more familiar ground, and the prominent writer resumed her monologue before the admiring crowd.
Flavia turned to the woman next to her, who had just arrived that morning.
"What are you working on?" she said. Her proficiency at small talk amazed her.
"A memoir about surviving cancer," said the woman.
"Surviving it wasn't enough?" said Flavia. She thought of her mother who, before undergoing a mastectomy, had said she did not care since her breasts were no longer of any use to her.
"I hope people can learn from my experience," said the woman, defensively.
"That's very optimistic."
"I want to make the most out of my life," she added. "I want to help others."
Flavia nodded. "Good luck with that."
Later that evening, when she walked into the kitchen she found Adam eating a sandwich.
"Do you think people have sex here?" she said.
He laughed. "You mean casual sex? Among the guests?"
"Yes, random, animal, shallow intercourse?"
"I wouldn't know," he said, cleaning his glasses with the edge of his shirt.
"Forget about nurturing the creative process in a supportive environment. How about nurturing healthy frolic in a bucolic setting? It might provide a welcome distraction, and dissuade some from writing another novel or a memoir."
"You should bring it up at dinner," Adam said, amused.
"I bet it was after he returned from his residency here that Broch declared literature was the domain of vanity and mendacity."
"I'm afraid your efforts on his behalf did not succeed."
"Failure is my business. I caused my father's death in an attempt to please him," she said, and dropped on a chair. "But maybe I wanted him dead."
Adam was quiet and then he said, "We all want our parents dead at some point."
"Do you have children?"
"A boy and a girl."
"You should be home with them."
"You may be right. I wanted to get away from everything. I don't know what I was hoping to find."
"What you left behind," she said, knowing that what she had left did not amount to much.
In the morning a loud sound awoke her—somebody was knocking at the door. She slipped on a shirt and a pair of pants.
"One moment," she shouted, and rushed to the door.
Jack was standing in the hallway next to a suitcase. "I wanted to say goodbye. I'm leaving."
"I didn't know," she said. She had only two days left, and had expected to leave before he did.
"I'll check out the Austrian writer you mentioned," he said, and held out his hand.
She leaned against the doorpost as his empty hand hung in midair. Something was giving way inside her. She felt herself shrinking—a barren sack of grief and rage. And before she could stop herself she started to cry.
"I'm sorry," she said, wiping the tears from her face. "I don't know what's wrong with me."
He placed his hand on her shoulder. "It's okay."
"We should all have somebody who reads to us before we go to bed," she said.
In the stillness of the afternoon, she lingered in the garden of the estate trying to name the different varieties of plants. She named them in English and in Italian. She needed both languages. She lived suspended between the two, and more and more it seemed to her that translating somebody else's words was the only way she had to reach another soul.
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