As I stepped out of the shadow of the arcade running along the Piazza San Marco, I saw Amanda Crespi sitting at a cafe table.
In front of her was a cup on a saucer. She was wearing a thin black sweater (I had seen sweaters like that in a shop window along the street leading to the Piazza), and was holding herself tightly across the breasts with one arm while smoking a cigarette held delicately between two fingers of the other hand. Her dark sunglasses reflected the sky. Pigeons whirred through the blinding, briny brightness between us. It was midmorning in October, and the sea-charged air was still laced with little threads of warmth from the Adriatic. I swept off my own sunglasses as I approached; I wanted her to see my eyes.
If Amanda Crespi was startled, she controlled her reaction with such finesse that she appeared to be bored.
"Hello," I said.
"Buona sera," she said, stressing each syllable in her ringing voice. (Was she joking?) Then she coughed a few times, raucously, into her elbow.
I slipped my sunglasses back on and waited for her coughing fit to be over. When she finally looked up at me, her eyes were full of tears, and I realized that the coughing must have caused her great physical pain; she had thrown her sunglasses onto the table, and was laughing a little between after-spasms.
She was still amazingly beautiful, although, as the books say, "the years had taken their toll."
"Sit," she said.
Although pitched like a request, in the delicately searching voice of a young girl, this was not a request, but an order. I pulled out the metal chair with a screech and sat. I saw a waiter detach himself from the doorway of the Caffe Florian and start over to our table, holding his tray aloft.
"Take off those ridiculous glasses," she said. "Christ" cough cough "I mean, if you're going to wear sunglasses, get something tasteful."
I slipped the sunglasses from my face, folded them, and slid them into the breast pocket of my jacket.
"And that leather jacketit's awful."
"Awful?" I laughed. "Why?"
"It doesn't suit you in the least, darling."
There was the waiter, hovering, his profile edged by blinding sunlight; an old man with the sour demeanor of these Italian waiters jaded by thirty years of serving dukes and princes. I wondered if he knew just who it was sitting across from me, and decided he probably wouldn't care. He placed a glass of thick, clear liquor on a paper napkin in front of Amanda Crespi.
"You can take this away, darling," she said, lifting her cup on its saucer. He took it with a shrug, placing it on his tray, then turned smartly on his heels and looked down his aquiline nose at me. I squirmed in my chair and ordered a coffee.
He swung away without a word, striding off through the orderly ranks of cafe tables.
Amanda Crespi was laughing at me again. She pulled her face into a frown to try to stop, but couldn't. She bent over, holding herself, as I tried to compose my face into an expression that would make her stop.
"Oh you're only making it worse, darling," she said. She reached over the table and placed her fingers, flat, on my wrist. "So let's discuss what you came about, before I lose it entirely."
I didn't say what I thought then, which is that I would have been delighted to see Amanda Crespi lose it entirely. I instead told her why I had come up from Rome. And who had paid my train fare.
She squashed out her still burning cigarette in an ash tray and looked me in the eyes with a kind of merry anguish, or sarcastic despair, or nonchalant rage.
"It's been a long time since I thought about him," she admitted.
"He thinks about you all the time."
She sat back, reflecting, then picked up her liquor and drank it down in one swallow.
"Will you tell him I was drinking again when you saw me?"
"You're a lovely looking young man," she said.
The waiter was heading for us. We went quiet while he approached, his heels clicking. He slid a saucer with the cup of coffee on it from his tray to the table and stood back, holding the tray at shoulder level, and Amanda blinked up at him and said, "Grazie," meaning, "That will be all, please go," and he said, "Prego," meaning, "I couldn't care less about anything you people do, think, or sayit's all the same to me."
This would be the part of the story where I explain exactly what I was up to and who had hired or blackmailed or perhaps only imposed upon my friendship to come to Venice looking for Amanda Crespi, that great actress from an era when filmic art is said to have reached its apogee of sensitivity, grace and cynicism worldwide in the work of directors like Ratti, Callejo, Tarkov, and Anderson.
But, like some of those men, I prefer to let the story tell itself.
We left the Piazza together, walking between the columns at the San Marco landing and then along the bare riva with the lagoon splashing and glittering on one side and the grand hotels looming on the other.
Signore Vitelli's villa is bordered by a line of ink black cypresses. The sky is aflame with harsh noon sunlight as I crunch up the gravel driveway. The maid lets me in. I find Signore Vitelli, in a white linen suit, slowly pacing the loggia. I look past him into his garden, squinting to make out the details of an ornate fountain in which a statue of a nude woman wrestles a sea serpent, a stream of water bubbling out of the sea serpent's mouth.
Signore Vitelli is wearing an ascot. His eyes are a brutal shade of blue. His crisp manner reeks of criminal complacency. He is wearing a huge Rolex studded with blue diamonds. His mouth is a thin, bitter line. He says nothing until the maid pours the coffee, holding the handle with a napkin, the coffee sluicing from a silver spout. He doesn't blink, he doesn't rustle. His shoes shine. His linen trousers are razor creased. The maid goes out with her head bowed, leaving behind barely a trace-odor of Sicilian lemons. I listen to a door close somewhere in the bowels of the villa and look out at the fountain, its streams of water shooting into bright Tuscan air.
Signore Vitelli stirs his demitasse with a little spoon and sets the spoon in his saucer. I'm sweating. His legs are crossed like a cricket's about to serenade the gathering dusk. He unfolds himself suddenly and stands up straight to pace to the window. He is dark against the tall, arched window with its glaring trefoilshis thin, faded features vanish quite suddenly, extinguished like the sun when it slips below the mauve hills. It's not sunset, yet, though, when he begins to tell me all about Amanda Crespiit is an insect- rumorous afternoon in the hills above Florence, and Signore Vitelli's garden is crowded with broken statues of priapic gods and their dwarf consorts.
He seems to dislike all women, but Amanda Crespi, I sense, he dislikes more than most or even all the others.
I'm packing my crates of books. Outside is the shouting of raggazi and the clatter of motorbikes in the stone street. I'll buy some oranges on my way to the train station and carry them in my luggage to eat in Venice. It will be cold there, already misty with almost-winterthe canals will ripple with a damp wind from the Adriatic that skims the marshes and penetrates the stone walls of the clustered buildings as if they were made of paper. Venice, perched like a colony of storks on poles driven down into the mud of innumerable islets. A city of moldering, dissolving but still not quite discredited, glory.
I am preparing to send the box containing my typewritten novel by mail back to the States, wrapped tightly in a black ribbon. It's nothing, it's even less than that. How could I have labored for so long to bring forth into this world nothing? Yet I did, to my endless chagrin. I breathe the bitter air of Rome in the early morning as I struggle with my bags to the Stazione Termini. I've locked the apartment door behind me and left the key under a flagstone. There's nothing to keep me here but exhaustion and abject submission to fate.
Signore Vitelli's given name is Roberto. He used to produce films and now he makes wine and sometimes he gives money to charity. He and Amanda Crespi were married in 1969. They rode on his motorcycle all over Italy. Everywhere, he says, gesturing with both arms to the north and south. We went to Turin, we went to Palermo. To Sardinia. By the boat, which takes a day and a night, and then on the dusty roads, vroom vroom. Amanda Crespi, nineteen, clinging to his waist, laughing. I had her to myself, absolutely, Roberto Vitelli cries. My fresh one and only love. She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. She tasted of pollen, dust, honey, and citrus. We drank wine, we danced under the moon, oh how glorious. She had divorced her first husband and he drank himself into oblivion and an early grave, a pauper's grave. Amanda Crespi used him up then tossed him into the garbage and he was swept away by the brooms of the streetsweepers by morning. She leaned out the window into the light, naked, her breasts like plums, and laughed. We never had a son, although I wanted one desperately.
Later, Amanda Crespi left Italy for America, where she made movies with Robert De Niro and appeared at the Academy Awards in a sheath glittering like fish scales. She bought a small house in the dusty hills and sat on her veranda watching lizards skim the top of the wall. There was speculation that she was drinkingcertainly, she was using pills. The scripts that kept landing in her lap disappointed her brutally. In them, her part was no longer that of the mistress belting her white trenchcoat outside the hotel room, but the embittered wife chain smoking by the window.
Amanda Crespi stops on the Accademia Bridge. She stands with a limp arm resting on the wooden railing and tosses her hair back. This is the pose that best reveals her profile. It takes me back to the filmsthis combination of hardness and insoucience, indifference and provocation.
Signore Vitelli is dark and forbidding in crisp linen pants and a thin sweater. His father was Sicilian and his mother from Corsica. He has no tolerance for fools, and from the beginning I suspect he counts me as one of their vast number. I don't attempt to prove otherwiseI'm beyond any special pleading for myself. I let people think what they will of me, and smile. I think he'll come around when he finds that I am not fussy. I give him the straight answers his elaborate manners demand. I don't try to equal him in elegance, in circumlocution. I let him talk and I keep my responses to a strict minimum. I can feel his respect growing, perhaps grudgingly, over the afternoon. He talks and paces, fingering his watch. In the pauses, I can hear a gardener's shears clipping the shrubs lining the gravel pathway. Once, I get a glimpse of their weilder: an old man in blue coveralls, his cheeks covered with white stubble.
So," she says. "How is Robert?"
The wind, which smells exhilaratingly of seeweed, slaps hair against her cheek and she holds it back with her long, tapering fingers. I feel an impulse to touch her. I laugh.
"He'll be gratified to know that you asked."
"I care about him very much."
"Oh, please don't be so dull."
We walk to her hotel in amicable silence.
"Come up for a drink," she says.
The desk clerk smiles with real depth of feeling at her as we enter the lobby, but when he sees me his lips tighten into a merely polite grimace.
"No messages," he says to her as she passes him with an airy toss of her head, like the one she gives Robert Redford in the first shot of A Champion's Grace.
"Thank you, Gian-Carlo" she says.
In her room, she slips off her sweater and tosses it onto a sofa. She paces back and forth across the room a few times, her heels clicking on the marble, before she impulsively picks up the phone and calls room service for a bottle of scotch.
"Will that do?" she says to me, holding her fingers over the receiver.
We go out onto the balcony and look at the looming dome of Santa Maria della Salute as the sunset darkens it.
"I'm getting a little cold now," she says.
I turn to go in.
"No," she says. "Come here and hold me."
I put my drink down. She keeps hers in one handthe ice cubes rattle as I slip my arms around her waist. I pull her tightly against me. I'm tempted to lift her off her feetit wouldn't be difficult. Maybe I should just throw her over the railing. In a cinematic flash, I see Amanda Crespi sinking beneath the dark water of the Grand Canal, its green black currents now cut into choppy waves by the wake of a lumbering vaporetto full of awed tourists. My last glimpse of her would be the pale glimmer of that silk blouse. She would lie still in the muck and trash at the bottom, wreathed in strands of seaweed.
When I let her go, she's smiling.
"You're a sweet boy," she says, and although I know I'm nothing of the kind I'm gratified to hear it anyway.
Amanda Crespi leans across the table to let me light her cigarette. Afterward, I'm stunned to realize I've picked up the lighter, ignited her cigarette, and snapped it shut in the same gestureall in one continuous shot, so to speakexactly like Michael Caine in Fugitive Moments. The lighter is engraved with my initials. It was her gift, bought in a little shop near the Rialto. "Thank you, dear." She has the rasping intake of a veteran smoker. She breathes the smoke out of a side of her mouth. "You can stare at my breasts, if you like. I don't mind. In fact, I rather enjoy it." She goes silent when the waiter, handsome and lanky, comes over to pick up our bottle and pour us more wine. "Well, there's a face," she declares, as he returns to his station at the bar. "I wonder if he ever expresses an emotion." It's true: the man's expression hasn't changed once. Rigid, quietly self-possessed, yet not at all unpleasant.
I turn the bottle to look at the label.
"Don't worry," she says, with a laugh. "It's not Robert's."
"This is wonderful wine," I offer.
"I didn't produce it, I just made the money to pay for it," she quips.
It's our third bottle. The alcohol seems to give her mental wings. She darts from subject to subject like a little girl opening birthday presents.
The waiter is standing at the bar with his arms folded. The owner is writing, with a large fountain pen, in his ledger. I can hear the steady scratching of the nib. We're the only ones left here.
"Shall we make our exit?" she asks. I stand and give her my arm.
As we totter outside, the waiter holds the door for us andfinallysmiles. "I'm in love," Amanda Crespi says. He doesn't show any sign he's heard.
We stagger down an alley with streaked black walls. At the end is an archway beyond which we can see lights dancing on the Grand Canal. Amanda Crespi tells me, acidly, that she hopes she's going to get something out of her investment in all that wine and resplendent food. The bill, which I glimpsed just before she swept it away from me, was staggering.
"Maybe just a kiss," I tell her.
Amanda Crespi was 16 when she started in films. She was in Mario Costi's epic, The Prince, as Machiavelli's lithe, thumb-sucking sixteen year old whore-girlfriend. Then she went to live in the South of France, where she "smoked pot everyday, fucked everybody." Including other women? "Especially other women. Actresses, prostitutes, dancers." (Transcript of interview pub. in Interview, March 5, 1979).
She had beautiful breasts. "I wore tight sweaters, tweed skirts. All the men wanted to fuck me. Directors wanted to fuck me, so they hired me for their films. I had my pick of the lot." She used to drive an Alfa Romeo on the winding roads along the coast of Liguria. "I pushed it to ninety sometimes. I scared some people. I scared Visconti so much he pissed himself." (Ibid).
In those early films, Amanda Crespi seems to explode from the screen directly into your brain. She has a haunting winsomeness, a melancholy sensuality. I still remember that searing shot of her stretched out nude on the sofa in the Marguerite Duras film, Venice as viscerally as if I had been the one holding the camera. "I destroyed myself giving that performance. I won't even call it acting. I just destroyed myself on film, with the cameras rolling. After that I had to start taking pills to get to sleep. Pills and alcohol all the time. I didn't want to fuck anyone anymore. I wanted to shut everything out." (Interview pub. in Mirabella, August 9, 1991)
Amanda Crespi squints into the early morning sun. She lets smoke flow out of a corner of her mouth. Then she looks at me over her dark sunglasses.
"Who are you?"
I tell her.
"Ah," she says. "I thought you were Roberto."
I can't tell if she's still drunk, or merely teasing me.
She grins. A few of her teeth are discolored.
"You don't have a son."
She waves a hand.
You must write it purely," she admonishes me, "exactly as it comes to you."
The sea was blinding. I shaded my eyes. Gulls were swooping around us. I sat on the sand. I was tired. Amanda slumped against me. I slipped my right hand under her sweater and held a breast. Everything was dark by comparison to the sea. Sometimes I saw little flashes of color in the dazzling brightness out there.
What do you love most?"
I woke in a hospital room. The radiator was tapping. My head was on a hard bolster. I was strapped to the bed. I remembered Amanda steering across the divider. I remembered the flash of sunlight from the wide windshield of the truck, and the shadow of the truck driver inside, pulling wildly on his wheel as we
It seemed to take a long time for us to hitlong enough to get to Milan. To Rome. To Paris. Anywhere.
They covered my chest with a coat. Rain was falling on my face. Then I was picked up by the shoulders and legs and put onto a stretcher. I tried to ask about Amanda, but my jaw was too numb.
In the last shot of Torro, Torro, where she leaves Burt Lancaster slumped over his bottle in a Madrid bodega, Amanda Crespi blazes with a light so intense she blurs in it. And I'll never forget how she tosses his matador's jacket casually over her shoulders and strides away, her heels clicking on the cobbles.
Roberto stood in the fog. He had almost disappeared. His arm was raised; he was pointing at something I couldn't see. We were both drunk on grappa. His voice was full of emotion.
"Look!" he cried.
I strode over and looked: an old motorcycle leaning against the gnarled trunk of an olive tree, the chrome fenders rusted, the tires worn balloon-smooth, with dead leaves scattered on the ripped leather seat.
You're funny," Amanda said, stroking my brow the way my mother used to when I had a bad fever and had stayed home from school. I shut my mouth, imagining that it held a thermometer. In just a few seconds, she'd take it out and hold it up to the light to look.
"What is it?" I'd ask, my voice full of fear.
"It's fine. You're going to live."
She always smiled. This was her slight idea of a joke.
She looked nothing like Amanda Crespi, nothing. Although in her own quiet way I'm sure she was beautiful. And she was sad, like Amanda Crespi. But all women are sad. You see that when you get to know them.
I could fall in love with you," I said to Amanda.
She was staring at my face. No, not my face. My profile.
"If I were younger," she said.
"No, not then," I said. "Only now."
I didn't look at her. After a while, I realized that she had fallen asleep. I slid out from under the covers. The floors, of marble, were as cold as ice to my bare feet. I went into the bathroom and sat on the edge of the tub. My life was flashing in and out. I didn't feel a living part of the present moment. I felt like waste. I felt ages old, reduced to archaeological rubble, like that Roman villa I'd seen in Sicily. There were still some mosaics intactlion hunting scenes, men and women performing crass sexual actsbut everything else had been destroyed by marauders or erosion.
In a BBC interview, Amanda Crespi boasted of having been a whore at fifteen.
"I was an exquisite piece of ass," she said.
The plain-faced matron interviewing her looked sharply uncomfortable.
"It was in Bologna," she said. "Do you know what is the specialty of Bolognese whores?" Triumphantly: "Fellatio."
I used to work in publishing. My job was to read the slush pile. I took the manuscripts home. I dreamed of discovering the next genius. When I didn't, as more and more flat useless time passed, I fell into a funk. When I was depressed and it was raining in Manhattan I went to midnight movies. I sat through Rome, Next Spring almost fifty times, just for the scene when Amanda Crespi shoots James Mason, then strips off her clothes and dashes into the sea. I think she was twenty, then. It had just begun for herthis radiant celluloid lifebut already it was almost over.
My girlfriend, Elizabeth, finally packed up and jetted off to France. I decided to join her there quite suddenly, one night, while I was drinking raw, straight gin from a water glass. I flew into Charles de Gaulle and caught a train from Paris to Aix. Elizabeth was staying with some friends, all much younger than I was and still full of inviolable plansall, alike, thrumming with the music of hope. She went into hysterics of joy over the fact that I'd chased her across the Atlantic. I suppose no boyfriend of hers had ever done that. "You must really love me!" she shrieked. I moved into her room and we spent the days making love like feverish rabbits. After some of the exuberance wore off, I learned that, before my arrival, Elizabeth had been sleeping with her host, a handsome English painter named Mark Dodd. "It was nothing," she said. "I wanted to fill up the emptiness. And he was there. You know?"
When I stormed into Mark Dodd's studio to have it out with him, he tried to kiss me. I don't know what I was thinking. I picked up an exacto knife from the clutter on his work table and slashed an X onto his chest. He dashed out, screaming, bleeding like a stuck pig. I threw everything I'd brought into my suitcase and set off toward town. It was a long walk. Every half mile I had to sit down on the suitcase and take a breather. The sun was pounding on me. I think I had started hallucinating. I started to curse my life. Then, suddenly, I looked up and saw that I was surrounded by sheep. They were spilling around me, a flood of them, be-eh, be-eh, bells tinkling. And there was an old shepherd striding along with themcalm, easy strides, like he had all the time in the worldcarrying a knotty walking stick, the brim of a green wool cap pulled low over his forehead. He didn't speak to me. He just strode by, as if I were a shadow. After him came the small dogs, dashing back and forth to keep the stragglers going.
I waited until they were gone, utterly gone, then jumped up and started walking again, immeasurably happy.
In Elaine's, I sit at a rear table with Colin Jones, the hotshot editor. Although we are pretending to enjoy a serene privacy, we might as well be sitting in a display window at Macy's.
He's flipping through my pages of manuscript, pausing to read the chapter headings. I notice his tight, muscular forearms. He must play raquetball.
"Why did you write this in such an, ah, discontinuous fashion?" he asks.
I want to ask him if, when he experiences his life, he does so in linear terms. Instead, I say, "Fucked if I know."
"Well," he says, pushing up his glasses with a forefinger. "It's engaging. And it's about someone whose name can sell the book."
"Are you going to publish it?"
He looks at me, his eyes glittering like a snake's.
"Of course we are," he says. "There was seldom if ever any doubt of that. It's just that some of us didn't believe you'd ever deliver the, ah, goods."
"By the way," he asks, his forehead damp from the exertion of slurping the last drops of his soup and then mopping the bowl with bread. "How did you ever get her to open up to you?"
I wave my arm back and forth as if to dispell a cloud of spiderwebs. Colin Jones' gaze is on me, and he is smiling in anticipation of another quip.
"It started with a request from a very wealthy man I met in Rome, at a cocktail party."
"To do what?"
I push back my chair a little and look at him until he squirms.
"To bring his wife back to him. Or, failing that, to kill her."
"My God," he says. "Is that true?"
Everyone wanted to fuck me. It's true. Even now, with my face ravaged, they all still want to. But not for what I am now. For what I was. Isn't that funny?"
She was holding the cigarette delicately between two fingers. We were standing on the balcony watching the sun fade behind Santa Maria della Salute. I could hear voices shouting in Italian, and a sledgehammer hitting stone: toc, toc, toc.
Venice, she told me, was once a few scattered islands in the muck. Torcello was where people lived. Here, circa 10th Century AD, there might have been a few fisherman's huts with smoke rising thinly from crude chimneys.
"A little over a thousand years. Do you realize how little time that is, really?"
I didn't respond.
"I think I'm just tired," she said. "Let's go inside."
I thought about Amanda Crespi at nineteen, her oval face shining like a hallucination on the posters for Bresson's La Vie Absolu. I remembered her pure skin and searching green eyes and delicate ears, no earlobes, with slits in them.
I watched as she raised her hair, swept it from the sides of her face, and pinned it at the back. Wondering: In which of the movies in her oeuvre have I already seen her perform the same quick, precisely calibrated gesture?
At the Lido, a bright and fine morning. Piercing gull screeches rend the air. We walk along the beach. I suddenly feel that I haven't asked her the right questions. But, reallywhat would those have been?
"I don't have any ideas left, about anything," Amanda Crespi says, and her voice, chastened to a bleak monotone, sounds as if it is reciting a quote from the book I have yet to write on her. "I couldn't care less what they think about me back in America. I'm really not a part of that world anymore. I don't see those people. I don't even work. I just drift. Like the seagulls."
After lunch, I walk down Fifth Avenue. The day is cold and bright, with that almost intolerable splendor of late autumn. It's been a year since I went on my mission to Venice. I see myself in the shop windows, superimposed over coutured mannequins and tasteful jewelry. I look younger than I feel or imagine myself to be. I look about thirty five, but I'm almost forty.
I'm getting to resemble my old man.
You can't jump over your own shadowCatalan saying. What if, one day, your shadow were to jump over you?
Once, on a winter morning in Rome, I watched a cat crouching in a doorway across the narrow street, its fur matted and wet. I was tempted to try to save the animal from the bleakness, the cold, but I knew that if I tried to lure it inside, it would just hiss at meand, if I tried to pick it up, it would claw my hands to pieces.
I dreamt a conversation with Amanda Crespi last night. We were in some foreign city, I don't know which one, walking across a wide windswept square. She looked quite beautiful, and was laughing.
"Don't you love me?" she asked, in a ringing, mocking tone.
It was so real, that dream.
After shaving, I stare at my face in the mirror over the sink in the hotel bathroom. I used to do this every morning: stare, as if by staring at the planes of my face I could know myself better. Then, for a long time, I stopped looking.
There is a long scar across my forehead from the accident, where the Milanese doctors had to suture me up. It has already started turning white.
Amanda Crespi laughed, and, bending over me so that her breasts swung close to my eyes, poured cognac into my glass, so that it filled to the rim. Playfully, she poured a few more drops. She kept pouring cognac, a few drops at a time, until the cognac had risen above the rim of the glass, but had not yet spilled over.
"Try to drink it," she said, laughing, her voice like a cracked bell. "Go on. If you can do it, I'll buy you a car."
She was staring up at my face, her eyelashes dense and darkand suddenly I saw her again as extraordinary, greater than life: a movie star. I saw a tear fall onto her forehead. I was crying. I couldn't help myself. She stared at me with tenderness, with amazement, as I went on thrusting inside herand all the while I was weeping like a little boy. At that moment I remembered how, in The Drinker, she made a fist out of Alain Delon's hand and hit her own face with it until he began to sob and staggered off the restaurant terrace into the rainy night.
And now, as I write this, I recall a whale watching boat trip I went on once, alone, from Gloucester, Massachusetts. I remember the slimy deck and the screeing gulls and the perfect, vivid stillness far out in the Atlanticand then the whales breaking the glassy water, displacing it with their broad backs, spouting up jets of foam that broke apart and shone like diamonds before diving back underneath so that the sea churned and swirled around where they'd been.
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