Me and Henry Miller

I was reading a novel about every three or four days in the beginning and if I had any time between lessons I’d spend it at the Feltrinelli near the Scala. They had a good selection of American and English titles and as I bounced from stories as different as Endo’s The Sea and Poison to Coezee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, I found that my tastes in literature were divided into two camps: the authors whose pessimistic vision of humanity presented me with disturbing moral questions and those who had a more “damn the torpedoes,” libertine approach to life.

Perhaps it was because I’d finally abandoned my schizophrenic mother to her own fate when I’d left the States. After years of taking care of her I thought that she could fend for herself, which, of course, wasn’t true. She would never be totally self-sufficient, but it was what I wanted to believe. I didn’t want to think about what I’d done, but like the characters in Endo’s novel, I’d been faced with a choice. Do I protect the weak or selfishly pursue my future as a writer in Europe? I chose the latter and so condemned my mother to years of living homeless on the streets of Los Angeles. At the time, no one else could have looked after her, or probably, for that matter, endured her often times extreme behavior, but I didn’t see that as an excuse. She was crazy, and I knew that she would never get better, but I hadn’t been there when she needed me and that was all that mattered in my mind.

To forget about this lack of self-sacrifice, or abnegazione as the Italians called it, I read Henry Miller and Bukowski. I also had copies of two of Ernest Hemingway’s earlier works, The Nick Adams Stories and The Snows of Kilimanjaro but those stories, in my opinion, didn’t have that “in your face” sexuality/escape quality that I was looking for. Which is ironic, when I think that Hemingway had already written The Garden of Eden in the 1950s and that his gender-bending tale of three lovers was certainly more radical than the rather traditional “man-on-woman” action that Miller and Bukowski were offering.

The anarchy and black humor of Bukowski’s Post Office said to me that while I hadn’t written anything that I could hold up and say “Hey, this is proof that I’m a writer!” my life was certainly as screwed up as Bukowski’s and I figured that that was a good start. A writer needed to experience life and then eventually write about it and if it turned out that I didn’t have any talent and that I would have done better to stay with my mother then I would cross that bridge when I came to it. In the meantime, I’d convinced myself that I was creating the raw material that I would later use in my “masterpieces.”

Yet, if Charles Bukowski assuaged my guilt and made me think that perhaps it was cool to live in a dump and do minimum wage work, Henry Miller’s novels were saying that there should literally be no limits to my head-long flight from responsibility. I was reading what he wrote about love, women and sex, and thinking that perhaps I could apply his particular recipe for happiness to my own life. His erotic prose fit in perfectly with the country that I was living in. The Italians were obsessed with beauty and especially female beauty. Scantily clad, seductive women were everywhere you looked. Gorgeous Mediterranean signorine with dark hair and light skin advertising black lace negligees in the Metro and on the trams that I rode to work. It was an endless parade of titillation and while Italian men seemed to take it in stride, for me it was something new.

Another novelty was the way that people looked at each other. Flirting was a national pastime in Italy and everywhere I went women were giving me stares that back home I would have interpreted as “strong interest.” Here, it was just a part of the scenery. You looked at them, they looked at you and usually it never went any further than that. It was a very traditional country and so long as you were aware of this, there was never any problem. My mistake was thinking that I could act like Mr. Miller and get away with it.

The more I read from the man who’d given us Sexus, Nexus and Plexus the more I became convinced that betrayal was the solution to my problems, although I didn’t think of my fantasies as betrayal. No, for me this wasn’t cheating on Patrizia, I was just playing the field, and how could it be wrong if she knew what I was reading and more or less what I was thinking?

It was all out in the open and while I know that some women can be tolerant of their men when they act like imbeciles, when I think back on what I was planning I’m amazed that she didn’t leave me. Subconsciously driven to recreate past events of betrayal and abandonment, it was almost as if I was trying to provoke a reaction in Patrizia when I kept bumping, purposely, into one of her girlfriends at the U2 concert in February, or when I would tell her that I was still receiving and sending letters to a college student I’d met in France the summer before. We hadn’t been together very long (about five months) and had it been me instead of her on the receiving end I’m sure that I would have called it quits.

The cherry on the cake, though, came when one of her school friends invited us over for dinner. Usually we either went out with a group of people or on our own and so when Patrizia asked me if I felt like going I said “sure”. I bought a bottle of Bonarda in the macelleria near our apartment before we left and armed with that we set out to find their apartment.

The building was on a dimly lit street, not too far from Corso Buenos Aires. It was old, but it had been recently restructured and we had to walk up three flights of stairs because there was no elevator. Following Patrizia with the bottle in my hand, I asked her again what her friend’s name was.

“Francesca,” she said, “and his is Ettore.”

At the top of the stairwell there was only one apartment and we knocked on the door.

“Avanti!” said someone from inside and walking in we were greeted by Ettore who gave Patrizia a kiss on the cheek before shaking my hand. He was about my height, 5’9”, and was wearing a pair of jeans and a heavy wool sweater. He didn’t speak much English but I knew enough Italian to be able to follow the conversation he was having with Patrizia. He wanted to know if we’d had any trouble finding the place and said that it was great that we could come and that finally he had a chance to meet us after all Francesca had been telling him.

Looking around I saw that their apartment was tiny. There was the combo living room/kitchen area where we were standing, a small bedroom to my right and an even smaller bathroom to the left of the entrance. Francesca worked at a travel agency and Ettore was a bank clerk, and I thought that like us they too were probably renting but later discovered that Ettore’s parents had bought him the place when he finished university.

Francesca had prepared stuzzichini (small antipasti with speck and other cold cuts) and then a fantastic spaghetti alla carbonara, followed by a roast, and finally a tiramisu for dessert. The dining table in the center of the room was set with candles and crystal wine glasses. I sat facing Ettore, while Patrizia was at the opposite end from Francesca. Our hostess was perhaps a bit taller than Patrizia and had thick, dark hair which grew down past her shoulders. She was certainly an attractive woman and what you noticed first about her were her eyes. They were lively and at the same time vulnerable. They were open to conversation and I could see why she and Patrizia got along. Behind the quick glances and the laughter there was a hint of melancholy and abandon, which I didn’t understand but which added to Francesca’s sensuality.

We opened up the bottle of Bonarda and when that was gone, another bottle from Valtellina that Ettore insisted that we try, a four-year-old Inferno. The dinner was excellent and when Ettore asked if I liked Italian cooking I told him what I told everyone, that it was second to none and that Italy was a great country and then, looking at his girlfriend, that the women were very beautiful. Francesca, whose cheeks were already rosy from the wine, turned a darker shade of red and asked me, after conferring with her boyfriend, if I wanted to see some photographs.

“Just an album that we put together last year,” she explained, looking at Patrizia, “an art book of sorts,” and I was sure that they’d be the usual family vacation pics that Italians were always showing each other.

Instead, when she put the heavy leather album down on the dining table and opened it up to the first photo I was surprised to see her posing like a ‘50s pinup in nothing but a black lace bra and panties.

“It was my idea, but Ettore took the photos,” she told me and when I turned the page there was another woman, slim, blond and buxom, but who instead of black was wearing red. She, too, was striking a pose and the first image that came to mind was of Ettore, alone in a room with the two of them, clicking away as they pranced about him half naked. “Art, indeed!” I thought.

“That’s Eleanora,” said Francesca to Patrizia, “do you remember her from school?” Patrizia did and wasn’t impressed. She may have been getting bored or angry with me, but I wasn’t even looking at her. I was staring at the book and as I turned the pages I felt almost intimidated. It was as if Francesca had pegged me right from the start and was calling my bluff. As if she was challenging me not to be stimulated by what I had in my hands.

“Nice pictures,” I said, after a parting shot of Eleanora licking a lollipop in a sheer silk negligee.

“And we did the whole shoot in one hour” said Ettore.

“Truly remarkable.” I answered, as I pushed the album to the center of the table.

We didn’t stay much longer after that. It was getting late and we had a long ride home. We promised to see each other again and in the days that followed I kept thinking about Francesca and our meeting. I had memorized every detail of her from the photos and the dinner and almost imperceptibly, I’d started to think that I would have to see her again, but this time alone. The whole thing reminded me of Tropic of Capricorn, and of the women Miller would pick up in offices and parties, and at night when Patrizia and I were in bed and talking about what had happened during the day I’d sometimes mention the photos and my fantasies and how it was just like a Henry Miller novel and that perhaps I should take this to its “logical conclusion.”

We were both young and open-minded but I think that Patrizia didn’t throw me and my belongings out on the street when I got “logical” on her because she didn’t take everything I said that seriously. It was one thing to be theoretically in favor of “free-love,” quite another to practice it. She liked me and wanted our relationship to work and probably believed that I was just spouting off and that eventually I’d calm down and forget about Mr. Miller and his ideas. But the more I thought about Francesca the more obsessed I became with my desire to be as free and unhindered as Henry Miller was. Was it or was it not the land of amore? To me it was and so I decided to pay Francesca a visit. I remember that I actually told Patrizia that I was going and that amazingly enough she didn’t stop me. Perhaps after all my emotional acrobatics she’d reached her limit and had written me off as a hopeless case. I don’t think that she was very happy, but in my obsessive state I took her acquiescence as a green light.

Had I bothered to think about it I would have noticed that my behavior had more in common with Hemingway’s than with Henry Miller’s. Like Ernest, I was addicted to the idea of being in love, to the crazy euphoria of the first days and weeks and the way it made you feel, not to the realities of a long-term relationship. I believed like the author of A Farewell To Arms in the supremacy of romantic love, and while Hemingway once said that if you loved a woman then you should marry her, he never remained faithful to any of them for long. He married four times and his second wife, Pauline, was actually a good friend of his first wife, Hadley. On average his interest in any of his wives or lovers lasted about three years. After that, he’d start to look for someone new. He always felt guilty about his betrayals but that never stopped him from doing what he had to do. As he had one of his female characters in To Have and Have Not explain it, men couldn’t help but be the way they were. Women certainly preferred companions they could trust and who were faithful but men weren’t built that way:

“They want someone new or someone younger, or someone that they shouldn’t have, or someone that looks like someone else. Or if you’re dark they want a blonde. Or if you’re a blonde they go for a redhead. Or if you’re a redhead then it’s something else. A Jewish girl … (or) Chinese or Lesbians or goodness knows what … The better you treat a man and the more you show him you love him the quicker he gets tired of you.”

For me, though, my biggest worry on the tram to Francesca’s house wasn’t any species-wide tendency towards infidelity but that Francesca wouldn’t be there. I had imagined this encounter with her so many times but had never factored in the possibility that she might have gone out. I didn’t have her number and standing in front of her building I almost decided to give it up and go home. Luckily, when I finally pressed the button on the intercom, she answered. I quickly told her who I was and said that I wanted to see her. She must have been sleeping because she asked me if I could wait ten minutes while she put something on.

I walked to the end of the block and back a few times and when ten minutes had passed I climbed the stairs to her apartment. Once inside, she told me that unfortunately Ettore was at work, but that if I didn’t mind just talking with her we could have a coffee together. She then asked why I’d come and I made up some excuse about being in between lessons and with time to kill. I would have had to teach at two but I’d canceled everything that afternoon in anticipation of my great exploit.

She, however, was not playing her part. She may have believed me when I’d told her that I was just passing through, but any credibility that I might have had ceased to exist the moment I asked if I could see the photo album again.

“No,” she told me, that wouldn’t be possible. They only showed it to friends on special occasions and, besides, I’d already seen it once. Why in the world would I want to look at it again?

I then tried to steer her into the bedroom, but she wouldn’t budge from the kitchen. The door was open and I could have a look at the bed, if I felt like it, but she had to do the laundry.

“Put on a record,” she suggested, as I sat on the edge of their bed. There was a stereo on the floor and a jazz collection next to it, but I wasn’t in the mood for music. I’d come to try on my new identity as a literary Don Giovanni only to discover that the suit didn’t fit and that Francesca was way ahead of me. The bubble of my free-love obsession had been popped, but just to prove that there’s no end to humiliation once it’s begun, she decided to call her boyfriend and tell him that I was there. She wanted to see if he could make it home for lunch, because, “che bella sorpresa,” I had showed up at their door and it would be lovely if the three of us could eat together again. Ettore, though, wouldn’t be back ‘til four. He had work to do, and when I said to Francesca that I really should be leaving, she begged me to stay until her boyfriend came home. I told her that I couldn’t and when she insisted I finally understood that I hadn’t been wrong the night of our dinner. She was interested in me, but only so long as Ettore was there. They were offering me the chance to make my “dreams” become reality, to live another chapter from Tropic of Capricorn, but by then I’d flunked my first test as a Henry Miller apprentice. My ego had been justly bruised and I’d been forced to admit (if only for a moment) that who I was and what I wanted to be were not at all the same.

John Hemingway is an American writer and translator living in Montreal. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, Strange Tribe: A Family Memoir.