Able Was I
Chapter 1
   
 
August 15, 1985.
Before I saw Elba, there was
nothing but sea and sky. Then it
appeared, small on the horizon, an insignificant fleck just below the
vanishing point. On the water, perspectives are not forged from hard
angles. No perfect square is centered on the edge of the sea. The
imminence is the same yet the path, variable. Nascent and amorphous,
the island bobs up, down, right and left as the boat stays its course.
 

                 Let it go, he told himself. Hot sea air streamed past as he made his way to the bow. There was a crowd but that didn’t matter; he was alone. He spread his feet wide across the deck’s planks and rode the water’s pitch. Arm’s length from the rail, he leaned into the wind, balanced gravity against resistance, and released his grip. For an instant he was weightless, a buoyant extension of the ship. His shoulder-length hair floated behind, fanning out upon a plane of air. It felt epic and empowering, and his mind began to calm.
                Ahead, the division between sea and sky stretched as far as he could see, the little dot of land a flaw in its harmony. “Elba.” The rush of sea and wind were so loud he couldn’t hear his own whisper; he wasn’t even sure if he had said it out loud. It was funny to think of it as their destination, this island about which he knew nothing. Whether it was his release, the solitude or simply the sea, he didn’t care; something had dispelled his anxiety. He would deconstruct the moment later but now he was grateful to give in to it and allow his racing thoughts to slow. Discomfort settled like fine silt, a delicate mask. As Elba grew larger, its form began to take shape, the edges not rigid but soft and muted. The Mediterranean faded upward like a variegated rose.
     
   
     
 
Ere I Saw Elba
Chapter 1
 

Padua Railway Station, January 31, 2000

          Violette per la signora?”       
          Brigitte smiled. “Violets, in winter?” The last time she had seen Parma violets was in this very train station, more than forty years before, and yet her response was one of simple pleasure, unscathed by memory. Time had healed her wounds.
                The girl’s eyes sparkled with the possibility of a sale, but her tight-lipped scowl persisted. “Oh yes, they’re protected.”
                Unable to sleep, Brigitte had risen early and arrived at the train station a half-hour ahead of schedule. She was exhausted, but at least the morning’s leisure had dispelled the anxiety that had plagued her since her rash decision to come to Padua. She strolled the small station’s kiosks, bought a magazine for the journey, and was sitting on a bench flipping through its pages when the young girl approached. Though no more than nine or ten, the girl wore a stern expression that stole her youth. Her faded dress, once likely reserved for special occasions, had over time become common with wear. Still, for a zingarella, she was well kempt. Her hair, while unwashed, was neatly braided and her nails were clean.
                When Brigitte bent over to smell the flowers, her two miniature reflections stared up from the girl’s white patent leather shoes. The curvature of the shoes’ leather widened her eyes and elongated her jaw, like tiny Munch portraits. The shoes’ pristine condition was a paradox instantly overshadowed by another: the flowers had no scent. Nonetheless, Brigitte feigned intoxication. “They’re lovely. How much?”
                The girl’s eyes darted toward the tracks and then back again. Her shoulders folded in, her body contracting in secrecy as she whispered, “Two thousand lira?”
                Pulling her wallet from her purse, Brigitte replied, “I think that’s fair.”
                Brigitte’s departure was announced and she stood in preparation to leave. “Do you have change for a five thousand?”
               The girl pulled back in dismay. Now it was Brigitte who leaned forward. She handed the girl the bill and said, “Don’t worry, you keep the change. Buy yourself something pretty.” Finally, an impetuous grin spread across the child’s face—a smile of such expanse it should have transformed her sad demeanor to one of innocent beauty, but alas, it was disfigured by two broken teeth.
               On the train, Brigitte settled into her seat. She had booked an entire first class compartment to be alone and therefore had ample room to spread her things out on the seat beside her. Next to the posy of violets, a manila envelope sat on top of her magazine, Maria Viglietti scribbled across its front. Brigitte struggled to picture Maria as a fifty-year-old woman, Brigitte’s own age when Maria had moved to New York. Brigitte unconsciously raised her hand to her face and traced the lines that confirmed the passage of time. It was hard to believe that, after fifteen years apart, she and Maria would again be face to face, all thanks to the duplicity of a professed stranger. Brigitte fingered the envelope’s edges. She knew its contents would bear on both the past and the future. What remained unclear was the present.
               The train’s electrical system switched on with a flicker of lights and its accompanying subsystem drone. Brigitte rested her head against the seat cushion, picked up the small cluster of violets and held them to her nose. Their fragrance was barely detectable. A botanist friend had once told her that greenhouse flowers were odorless because in their shelter, they no longer needed their perfume to attract or repel. That must be the explanation, for Parmas were ordinarily exquisitely fragrant. Brigitte stared out the window recalling the girl’s words: they’re protected, and wondered how a gypsy had access to a greenhouse.
                As if summoned by thought, the girl appeared, walking down the landing toward a vagrant standing on the edge of the tracks farther out from the station. Filthy and disheveled, he rubbed his hands together over wisps of flame that danced above a large steel drum. It was an image from an era long past, one of wartime depression and isolation. The girl held out her hand to the man and for a moment he stared into her open palm before he bent down to her level and regarded her eye to eye. He gently clasped her open hand and curled it back onto itself, over the bill that Brigitte had given her, and then pulled her to him and buried his face in her hair. A single raindrop struck the window with a surprising thud. The man, the girl, and Brigitte all looked to the sky. Suddenly the storm clouds that had been threatening since Brigitte’s arrival to Padua broke, and it began to pour. The man swept the girl under the wing of his tattered overcoat and together they ran toward the shelter of the station.
                At last, Brigitte succumbed to her weariness, redirecting her attention to her magazine whose cover decried the U.S. presidential election. Yet the cover photo was no longer the vainglorious George W. Bush but the face of her mother, from whom she had been separated for far longer than Maria. It was a face that spawned a lifetime of memories, many she had struggled throughout her life to forget. Retreat lulled Brigitte toward sleep where phantoms from her past swarmed until they dissolved into a million pieces raining from a gray summer sky. The posy fell from her hand and with its descent a remembrance of violet perfume filled the cabin. As the train lurched forward, Brigitte was drawn back.

 
     
   
     
 

“Digging for Oysters”
(One American’s Ruminations at the Turn of the New Millennium)
December 1999

                A few years back two colleagues were debating America’s entrepreneurial spirit when Joanne (white) said, “My mother always told me the world was my oyster, that I could do and be whatever I wanted if I worked hard enough.” Christian (black) responded, “My mother told me every door open to me would need to be kicked in.”
               A friendship kindled and the story seeped into our company folklore as an example of different cultural perspectives. I believe it wasn’t difference but similarity that sparked the initial camaraderie. A similarity that is utterly American—a lens that, like parental advice, is tinted by experience. Mine is that of a white middle-class Southerner raised in a suburb unabashedly named Whitehaven. No kidding.
                Why do we look back to see forward? We scour our past for clues to our future. Whatever the reason, it is through such scrutiny, both personal and societal, that I search for what it means to be an American at the dawn of this new millennium.

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