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Such Perfection

Chloé Cooper Jones
1455 Snaps

No one else is paying attention. The train approaches the station at Varenna Esino. It is a small, regional train, headed north from Milan, its passengers whiling away the boredom of their daily commutes. A young man across the aisle gazes at the floor. A woman swaps her heels for a pair of sandals and reads.

But I struggle to keep my composure. The mountains have slowly been gathering themselves up, out of the fields and above the rooftops. They are now so high and so close to the train. Without warning, the lake is upon us. I notice first a change in the light. The sun breaks freely on the water, drawing sharp silver lines along lapping waves. In the changing light, the faces of strangers on the train look new. I see now a faint scar on the young man’s temple, and the woman reading the book is younger than I’d first thought. Her mouth appears bisected, half in shade, half illuminated. Her lipstick is red in shadow, magenta in the light.

I once heard that every painting is a solution to the problem of how to best carve light, but it is only at that moment that I finally understand what that could mean. My way of looking shifts. Every painting I’ll see from now on will bring with it, if gently, the memory of being on this train, watching the lake spread out before me, the light changing all I’d been observing. The moment is educative; it retrains my eye, refines my perceptual discernment. I see dust particles dancing, a static laid upon the scene. The passengers look lit as if by soft spotlights. I see their bodies plainly, the curves under their clothes, where their skin is smooth, their sweat, the whites of their eyes. The woman with the brilliant lipstick glances up from her book, tilts her chin to the window. The young man with the scar no longer looks so bored. He watches the lake with clear longing, as if he wished to strip himself bare and dive in. The sun penetrates our train car and I feel it, a heat on my body, and I know that the passengers can now see more of me too. The train ducks behind a grove of trees, and shadowed patterns of leaves grow across our laps. I hold my breath. I’ve never seen light carved so beautifully. 

*

The night before I left for Italy for a vacation alone, I had dinner in Brooklyn with a man whom I’d been skeptical of for years. We have many friends in common and so I’d run into him at parties and housewarmings. Each time, I left unsure whether I liked him. He was indifferent to me, which was not unusual and did not offend me. He didn’t owe me his attention, nor had I expected we’d be friends just because we knew the same people. I myself was indifferent to most people I met and resented any implication that I should be nicer or more socially gracious than I felt inclined to be.

The quality of his indifference intrigued me, though. At parties, he would sometimes answer my questions tersely and then walk away with no concern, it seemed, for a guise of reciprocal politesse. Once, at a dinner hosted in a friend’s Williamsburg loft, I made a game of seeing how many questions I could ask before he’d ask me one in return. It was a one-sided game played for my own satisfaction, and it was, perhaps, ungenerous of me to play it. But I was feeling ungenerous. I asked him where he grew up, did he have siblings, where had he traveled, did he like living in Williamsburg. I got to thirty-six questions, fifteen of which were follow-ups based on his answers, all of which he answered while looking mostly at his phone. As I asked the thirty-seventh, he got a text about another party, and left.

I disliked this man and found it exhilarating to be so near someone who projected a radical social freedom. I wanted to be as free, but was trained to keep such feelings as small as possible. But the exhilaration came mostly from the possibility that I’d met someone who did not look at me, at my body, and feel obligated to handle me with pitying care. 

And so I invited the indifferent man to have dinner with me, certain he’d say no, and that he’d say it just like that—No!—instead of speaking to me from behind a mask of muffled sympathies. But to my surprise, he agreed. The night before I left for Italy, we met at a Chinese restaurant.

Toward the end of the meal, the subject of a mutual friend and that friend’s new girlfriend came up. I’d been told by others that this mutual friend’s new girlfriend was the most beautiful woman in Brooklyn. I said this to the indifferent man, and he shrugged and showed me pictures of the woman, our mutual friend’s new girlfriend, on his phone, and she was, as advertised, quite beautiful. I was struck by how accurately I’d imagined her without any prior, concrete description. Her body fell within a familiar range. She was tall, but not so tall she might emasculate, and thin, but with soft weight in the necessary places. I found myself wishing I could touch this woman’s hair. It was long, auburn, and had a wild quality to it. The unruliness of her hair granted her a specificity that made the spectator believe she did not evoke just the general concept of beauty, but rather a particular, a singular, instance of it. She was young, white, symmetrical, able-bodied. A million times I’d seen this body shape and variations on this same face and been told, and sometimes agreed, that it was beautiful.

My own body exists outside of this range. I was born with a rare congenital disorder called sacral agenesis, which means that my sacrum, the part of the spine that connects the spinal column to the hips, failed to form. My body is visually marked by difference. I’m much shorter than the average adult woman. My legs from the knees down and my feet are underdeveloped and disproportionate to the rest of my body. My spine is curved, which makes my back arch forward. I have hip dysplasia, which means the ball-and-socket joints in my hips are malformed. This is painful. I walk by rolling my hips, which gives me a distinctive side-to-side gait. If I wear my hair in a long ponytail, it whips back and forth like a pendulum. I walk slowly. I’m slow on stairs. A significant amount of my daily energy is spent managing chronic pain, specifically in my hips and along my spine. 

Looking at the picture on the indifferent man’s phone, I’d wondered, not for the first time, what my life would have been like had I been born with this woman’s hair and face and body. The recurrent thought is that I could have had anything I wanted. 

I asked the indifferent man why he had pictures of our mutual friend’s new girlfriend. He said he’d dated her, too, just a few months before she got together with our friend.

“How long did you date her?” I asked.

He shrugged. “A few months.”

“And what happened?”

“I wasn’t all that attracted to her,” he said.

“But don’t you think she’s beautiful?”

He shrugged again, then told me stories about being at bars with male friends who were able to pick out five or six or ten women who were attractive to them, but whom he, the indifferent man, would not even consider.

“A ten in the eyes of most men will be a six to me. The girls our friends will date are all, like, a three for me,” he said. I sensed a reluctant pride. He needed a really beautiful woman, a supernaturally beautiful woman, he explained. He leaned in to make me his conspirator.

“This may be more than you want to know,” he said, “but if a woman is not, like, model-beautiful, I can’t even keep up an erection when I’m with her.” 

I had multiple feelings collide. I was disgusted by what he was saying, but I wanted him to keep talking. It was clear he could confess all this to me because I was not visible on the same plane as these other women—the threes, the sixes, the tens. I saw that my body barred me from his realm of possible women. The feeling brought with it a strange relief, as if I’d been looking in a distorted mirror and someone had just replaced it with a normal one. What he reflected back wasn’t kind, but it was clear. This is how men see me. The indifferent man offered no excuses or apologies. 

“Really, it’s a curse,” he continued. “I’d like to be able to date more women. But it’s not like you can control these things.”

“Can’t you?” I said.

“Of course not,” he said, looking at me in disbelief. 

I thought to leave the bar. Instead I said, “What you are describing is so superficial.”

“I know where it comes from,” he said. “I know I’m controlled by media and advertising and what they deem the norm in terms of beauty, blah, blah, but I can’t help that. I can’t be at fault for being a product of my environment.”

“But can you control it? Or adjust your thinking? If you are aware of the external forces influencing it?”

“How?”

He said this with such finality. It was a challenge. A light flashed outside, stippling his face into garish shadows. Did I really believe, he was asking me, that we could rewire ourselves; that we could use our intellect to unlearn our cultural training? To unsee what we’ve been taught to recognize as beauty? I felt unsure. His gaze was convincing. I wondered why he’d agreed to this dinner. I was likely the least physically attractive woman whose full name he knew. Were we here to make sure I knew exactly that?

“Does experience eventually alter the immediate effect of beauty?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“But haven’t you met someone,” I asked him, my voice rising, “who seemed very beautiful at first, but who was, I don’t know, boring, and so you lost interest? Haven’t you gained interest in a woman you’d initially too quickly overlooked?”

He shook his head. He’d grown tired of the conversation.

“This is all embedded in us from birth! You can’t undo it. What we’re told is beautiful becomes the truth.” 

*

The ideal of Western beauty begins with a lost sculpture. It is the form of a man, cast in bronze; in his left hand he holds aloft a phantom spear. He steps forward, torso torqued, his weight on his right leg, his left at ease. The Doryphoros, “the Spear Bearer,” was the masterpiece of Polyclitus, a beloved sculptor in fifth-century BCE Athens.

“Such perfection in proportion,” wrote the physician Galen of the sculpture nearly six hundred years later, “comes about via an exact commensurability of all the body’s parts to one another: of finger to finger and of these to the hand and wrist, of these to the forearm, of the forearm to the upper arm; of the equivalent parts of the leg; and of everything to everything else.”

In the Canon, a companion treatise, Polyclitus detailed the exact measurements of each part of the body as well as the necessary proportional relationship between the parts and the whole of the form. Both the treatise and the original sculpture are lost, although there exist—in various stages of deterioration and imperfection—Roman copies remade in marble. The most famous copy was pulled from the ashes of Pompeii.

These perfect proportions were, for the Greeks and later for the artists of the Italian Renaissance, the true, objective measurement of human beauty. Beauty was not a subjective, individual experience, but rather a property that could be evaluated mathematically.

But our proportions did not reveal merely something as superficial as pleasing physical beauty. Plato believed that proportionality in the body was evidence of a divine architecture, the same that could be found in the intricate order of the natural world around us. A beautiful body conveyed an innate, divine harmony—the godly awe of many disparate parts functioning together in perfect relation to a whole. It was more than what made us beautiful—it was what made us virtuous, aligned with our ideal forms.

“Measure and proportion are everywhere identified with beauty and virtue,” Plato wrote. “Beauty, proportion, and truth… considered as one.”

Just as falsehoods threatened truth, disorder threatened beauty.

“Ugliness,” warned Plutarch, “is immediately ready to come into being if only one chance element is omitted or inserted out of place.”

My disability: sacral agenesis, born without a sacrum, the bone that connects the spine to the pelvis. Agenesis, from the Greek, means “a lack or failure to generate.” My missing sacrum, my omitted element. 

*

Two days after my dinner at the Chinese restaurant, I stand at the edge of Lake Como in awe. Rays of golden light, sliced up by palm fronds, hang suspended in the air. I look for a long time, my suitcase at my feet, watching the trees and glittering lake beyond the trees and the ring of mountains beyond the lake.

My hotel is a twenty-minute walk from the station. I pass through the small town square and see people seated outside, drinking wine and watching a group of musicians play on the steps of San Giorgio, the medieval church. The scent of rosemary and brine permeates the air. If only someone would beckon to me, hand me a glass, and pull out a chair, I could abandon my walk, my suitcase, and join them. 

There is a specific ache in my right hip that has steadily become more painful over the past year. As I walk through the square and up a hill toward my hotel, the ache focuses into a thin blade wedged into my hip joint. The muscles in my back and along my spine bear what feels like a thousand small rips.

The driveway up to the hotel is steep. I inch up it sidewise, one foot shuffling beside the other. Halfway up, I lose my grip on my suitcase and it rolls on its wheels a few feet before toppling over and skidding to a stop. I am glad no one was around to see me, their gaze relaying back to me my perceived helplessness. But I’m not helpless; I’m struggling. People don’t always recognize the difference.

The hotel is a former monastery built into the side of a steep mountain. Reaching my room requires a ride in two rickety funiculars. It is dark now. The lake has disappeared, but I can still see the twinkling lights of Varenna below. In my room, I open the balcony doors and voices drift in. I want to be with people, but my physical pain commands the moment. The sound of laughter echoes in the valley. I stand above, separated from it. For so long, I’d told myself not to travel—better to stay home than move closer to something beautiful that excluded me. 

I think about the indifferent man and how he’d spoken to me. Sitting across from me in the restaurant, he’d held the posture of someone waiting for a timer to expire. He probably didn’t enjoy being seen out with me, lest someone mistake us for a couple. Or perhaps that had been the motivation behind agreeing to dinner. I’d heard from male friends that they had better luck with women when they were seen with me. I was an excellent prop. Their close association with me, some sad cripple, made them seem like sensitive, good-hearted men. A past girlfriend of a male friend had once pulled me aside at a party to tell me that my friendship with her boyfriend was what had drawn her to him in the first place. She’d said, “It was nice to know that he could care about any kind of woman.”

The indifferent man had spoken about beauty and ugliness in objective terms. The absence of beauty took tangible, measurable effect: it robbed him of his erection. Whereas the presence of beauty could be enough to inspire in him love and devotion. He’d said all this calmly and without judgment. 

*

The indifferent man had been paternal at times, as if he were merely doling out life’s hard facts to prepare me for a cruel world. He wasn’t the first, though, to offer this twisted version of tough love. That honor belongs to Jim. Jim and I were in a close circle of high school friends. We dyed our hair pink or purple or orange, wore studded belts and bracelets, had face piercings and handmade stick-and-poke tattoos—on my left forearm is a permanent reminder of this era: a faded, shaky image of the character Harold from Hal Ashby’s film Harold and Maude that my friend Jon, after a few beers, drew freehand using a razor blade and India ink. In the film, Harold—young, disillusioned, misunderstood—falls in love with eighty-year-old Maude. Their romance is strange, specific, joyful, socially unsanctioned. I identified with both characters. Like Harold, I was disillusioned and misunderstood. Like Maude, I was regarded as a socially inappropriate object of romantic desire.

Romance was for me an incongruent concept. I wanted it, but the world treated me as though I was disqualified from it. I would listen to other kids my age talk about attraction in terms of a sliding scale—someone could be sexy or not, or sort of sexy, or not sexy before but kinda getting more sexy all of a sudden.

My disability kept me, in the eyes of others, off that scale altogether, like an animal or a child. I saw people cringe when I referenced a crush or joined my girlfriends in lusting after a celebrity. I made people uncomfortable.

But Jim knew me well and cared for me, it seemed. The shortest boy in our friend group, he liked to stand near me because it made him feel tall. He took swing-dancing lessons and taught me moves. I was the one he could lift the highest and with the greatest ease, swinging me through his legs, flipping me around his arm. Afterward, he’d always hug me tightly and kiss my cheek.

When it came time for the homecoming dance, everyone in our friend circle began to pair up. I didn’t have a date and Jim didn’t, either. It seemed obvious, for purposes of group unity, that Jim and I would agree to go together. But it was also well-known that I had a crush on Jim. When the subject came up, Jim would look at me expectantly. My girlfriends would ask me at the end of each day, “Has he asked you yet? Has he asked you?” And each day, I’d say, “Not yet.”

At night, I’d imagine the moment when Jim would lift me into the air and spin me around and kiss my cheek and ask me to be his date. All the angst I’d curated as a teen dissolved into romantic cliché. I, like everyone else, wanted to be chosen. As the dance grew closer, I became anxious. Our friends had started to make plans for the dance, and I wasn’t part of them. Finally, my girlfriends urged me to stop waiting and just ask Jim to be my date.

I asked him in the library of our school. We were studying together for an upcoming geometry test, when finally he closed his notebook and smiled.

“I feel like,” he said, teasing me, “there might be something you want to talk to me about.”

I told him yes, there was, and I said simply that I wanted to go to the homecoming dance with him and would he take me.

“Of course,” he said. “I’d love to.” Relief flooded me to the point of dizziness. “But,” he continued, “there’s something very important I need to talk to you about first.”

He proceeded to tell me that our female friends had been pressuring him for weeks to ask me to the dance, not wanting me to feel left out.

“They love you,” he said, “but they pity you, and their pity won’t help you in the world.” I can, to this day, recall the exact, even tone in his voice, his syrupy smile. He reached across the table and took my hand. “I’ll go to the dance with you as your friend,” he said. “And that’s fine. But before we go, I need to tell you something important, and I tell you this as your friend. I want to protect you. You can’t go around asking people on dates. Men like me will always feel pressured to say yes when they want to say no, and then all you’ve done is put us in a bad position. We have to either sacrifice our happiness or reject you, and that just makes us feel bad. I feel bad now having to say all this.” He smiled a wincing smile. It was clear to me that he saw my crush as a cute delusion and what he needed to tell me was a painful but loving fact.

He continued, “Maybe no one told you, though, and I’m the one to tell you. It’s just the truth. No man will want to date you unless he, too, is desperate or ugly.”

*

I never much cared for the Greek concept of beauty, nor did I agree that it was a virtue on par with truth or justice. I’d always preferred Hume’s notion that beauty was not a set of external properties, but rather that it existed in the contemplative mind.

“Each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty.” Hume argues that some people are better judges of beauty than others. He calls them the ideal critics. And this is a better theory for me, a woman with a body that could never be mistaken for symmetrical or orderly.

 In contemporary aesthetic scholarship, the Greeks’ objective evaluations of beauty are often regarded as wrong, outdated—or, worse, uncool. But as I lay there in Varenna listening to the sound of the lake’s gentle waves coming to shore, I wondered if I’d rejected the possibility of divine, objective beauty simply because I was excluded from it. Being excluded from a theory doesn’t make it incorrect. 

 *

The next morning, I walk along the edge of the lake. The beauty of Lake Como is so massive and all-consuming that it accosts me. I turn a corner and cringe. I curse. The beauty of the lake is absolute, resounding. Birds sing, waves lap, the air smells of fir and jasmine. The sun shines, but it is not too hot; the wind blows, but it is not too cold. There is something restorative, palliative, in the air. I can walk farther; the twinge in my hip that I’d felt worsening for so many months is gone. I can sleep more, eat less, drink less, hear better. I take off my glasses and can see a great distance.

I’m easily seasick, but I want to see the other villages sprinkled around the lake. With fear, I buy a ticket for the ferry and stay on it for hours, taking in the grandeur of the mansions perched along the shore, the old churches, the verdant mountains. I feel not so much as a twinge of nausea. I take the boat to Bellaggio, where the English during the Victorian era flocked to recover from tuberculosis. To be here, to witness the lake, seems suddenly the most logical prescription for any ailment.

I sit on the shore, eating pizza and then gelato. The sun sets. I watch the palms at the edges of the water. I think of the scholar Elaine Scarry’s writings on the beauty of palm trees. In her book On Beauty and Being Just, she argues that there are two common points of error in our perceptions of beauty. The first, which she refers to as “the error of overcrediting,” occurs when we recognize that something we’d formerly thought beautiful no longer is. The second comes when we realize we’ve withheld the attribution of beauty from an object that has rightfully deserved it all along.

“For example,” she writes, “I had ruled out palm trees as objects of beauty and then one day discovered I had made a mistake.” This latter error, “the error of undercrediting,” is the more serious, as it is evidence of our “failed generosity.” 

Scarry recounts a moment when she is on a balcony watching the leaves of the palm tree move—they are “lustrously in love with air and light.” Her perception shifts; a mistake is corrected. “The vividness of the palm states the acuity with which I feel the error, a kind of dread conveyed by the words ‘How many?’ How many other errors lie like broken plates or flowers on the floor of my mind?” 

Night comes and still Scarry is on her balcony watching the palm tree, witnessing the missed beauty. “Under the moonlight, my palm tree waves and sprays needles of black, silver, and white; hundreds of shimmering lines circle and play and stay in perfect parallel.”

*

When men in my life had found me sexually alluring, they would often describe it as a shock, an unforeseen surprise, like they’d found an old coat with a twenty-dollar bill in the pocket. The word actually was commonly employed: “You’re actually attractive.” A stranger once stopped me on the street and said, “I’m not sure what you have going on here with”—he pointed down the length of my body—“this. But I actually think you’re pretty.” He asked for my number, which I declined to provide. This was not the response he’d expected, and so he followed me for a few steps. “No, no,” he said, diagnosing the problem. “I actually want to take you on a date. I’m actually being serious.”

A man had fucked me once and afterward said, “Wow, you feel just like an actual woman.” 

*

Elaine Scarry wonders how she’s missed the beauty of the palm and decides it is because she’d held in her mind some sort of palm tree composite, maybe made of television images, bad drawings, blow-up plastic palms at party stores, and that composite was ugly. It becomes beautiful only when the individual, specific elements line up, when the light is just right. It isn’t palms but this palm that corrects her error. It’s the singular instance of one palm. She looks up from under a canopy of palm leaves and sees an owl sleeping. By weaving its plumage with the palm’s leaves, the owl is able to suspend itself midair to sleep as if still in flight. Beautiful, she thinks. So now it is not just the particular palm that convinces her. It’s a set of particulars. This palm, this minute, the coolness of the spot where she stood, looking up. The noticing of the owl.

*

The next day, I go to Villa Monastero and walk through the great gardens there. The brochure tells me that several species of rare plants are able to flourish on the steep slopes of the botanical gardens in Varenna, and among them are certain varieties of palms. African and American palms, Chilean wine palms, European fan palms, Mexican blue palms. With Elaine Scarry in mind, I find myself very attuned to the beauty of these trees, especially the Mexican palm, whose blue-gray fronds shimmer and stir, its thin fringe waving in movie light. The whole scene is beautiful to the point of looking manufactured. When I look out over the water to the painted mountains, I feel certain the scene will flicker and reveal a green screen. The brochure explains that the Mexican blue palm is somewhat rare, able to flourish around Lake Como due to the exceptional climate, which is mild year-round.

I hike into the mountains. The path I take is so steep that at times I get down on all fours and use the rocks to drag myself up, like a mountain goat. At the summit is yet another monastery. I climb its turrets and look out at paradise below. This is what the poet Longfellow was looking at when he wrote, “I ask myself, Is this a dream? / Will it all vanish into air? / Is there a land of such supreme / And perfect beauty anywhere?”

Beyond the monastery I find myself surrounded by trees. Ahead, two older women, grocery bags in hand, are cursing in Italian at a bush. I hear a rustling. A third, much deeper voice emerges, laughing, and the rustling speeds up. The women curse louder, and the deep voice laughs louder. I approach the scene. There, in the bushes, a man is masturbating. His pants are around his ankles, and his thin penis sits gently in his palm. It has a gray and waterlogged look, like it’s been submerged in the lake for days. He makes kissing sounds at the women, but when I pass into view he freezes. He looks at me for a moment, then pulls up his pants. He glances down at my shriveled legs, visible below the hem of my dress.

 “Mi dispiace,” he says. (“I’m sorry.”) “Dio ti benedica, signora.” (“May God bless you.”)

*

Of Lake Como, Longfellow wrote, “…but ye have left / Your beauty with me, a serene accord / Of forms and colours, passive, yet endowed / In their submissiveness with power as sweet / And gracious, almost might I dare to say, / As virtue is, or goodness…”

*

A few months after the homecoming dance, Jim tried to kiss me. 

He said, “I was wrong before. Something has changed. And I like you.”

Before, Jim had spoken to me as if beauty were an unalterable fact, but now suddenly my beauty was discernible, visible if only in the right light. 

“What changed?” I asked him.

“You grew on me; you made me laugh enough times that I started to want to be around you more; you are smarter than my last girl.”

I remember the pang of pride I felt when Jim said this. I remember how it motivated me, like a dog wanting to please its owner, to prove my worth to him over and again. 

Jim’s perceptual shift, not what he said in the library, is the worst part of this story. It embedded a damaging idea in me, one I’d recognize deeply when I read Scarry years later: beauty is a matter of particulars aligning correctly. My body put me in a bracketed, undercredited sense of beauty. But if I could get the particulars to line up just right, I could be re-seen, discovered like the palm tree is discovered. In order to be accepted as a whole person deserving of the whole range of human desires, I had to be extraordinary in all other aspects. My worth as a woman wasn’t apparent otherwise. 

In this new light, I started to see my work, my intellect, my skills, my moments of humor or goodness, not as valuable in themselves, but as ways of easing the impact of my ugliness. If only I could pile up enough good qualities, they could obscure my unacceptable body. 

“The correction,” Scarry writes, “the alteration in perception, is so palpable that it is as though the perception itself (rather than its object) lies rotting the brain…. The perception has undergone a radical alteration—it breaks apart… or disintegrates.…”

Philosophically, Hume and Scarry provide richer views of beauty than the Greeks do with their conception of mathematical perfection. But accepting the argument that beauty is malleable came, for me, at a cost. The Platonian view rejected me cleanly, but Hume and Scarry left a door ajar, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to contort my form to see if I can pass through it.

*

I sit in the town square and eat my final meal in Varenna. Church bells clang, echoing strangely out across the lake, colliding with the mountain walls, playing a mangled melody. The bells are chaotic, sharp, abrasive. 

I watch the sun disappear. I will it to set slowly so that I may linger over this perceptual moment, to somehow swallow it up and keep with me forever this view of the lake, the mountains, the flowers, the palms. The next morning, my last, I sleep too late, miss the sunrise.

As the train rattles away from Lake Como, I close my eyes and see myself naked at the edge of the indifferent man’s bed. I hear him tell me what he sees: that I am too ugly to fuck. It isn’t my fault or his, merely a fact, impossible to undo. I imagine him saying it without intended cruelty. It is a regrettable truth, a door firmly shut. This is what I really want. Not his sex, but the intimacy of his decree, not masked in sympathy. I want to see his bare face. I imagine how beautiful it would be to hear someone speaking plainly and without subtext to me.

*

Later, I’m back in Brooklyn, chatting idly with an Italian barista in a café near my house. I mention that I’ve just returned from Italy. She asks me where I went. I tell her Rome, Venice, Lake Como, Milan.

“Ah, so a first time to Italy.”

I blush. How quickly I’ve revealed myself as one of the uninitiated.

I ask her about Lake Como, saying how I’d found it so beautiful, so hard to leave. She shrugs.

“It’s nice for the tourists,” she says. “But I’m accustomed to that view and prefer others.”

And just like that, the lake I’d beheld is gone.

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