I’m sitting on a rock in the
pier in the porticciolo. I’ve
been coming here often lately, mainly in the afternoons, to swim and to watch the
At this time of the year,
the sun sets over the shipyard on my right. I’m looking at it now, a big red
circle hovering above the cranes and the skeleton of a cruise ship under
When I first arrived, the
sun was setting somewhere else, on top of the thin strip of land that is now in
front of me. Someone told me there’s a resort there and that I should go.
Apparently there are some interesting ruins nearby, and it’s possible to stop and
visit them along the way. It sounded nice, but for some reason I have yet to make it there.
While sitting here I
can’t help but think about how close I’ve grown to the sea in my time in this
village. It might be the fact that I’m alone, but I now talk to it regularly,
and not just when I’m looking at it. I also talk to it while I’m in it. In
fact, that might be when I talk to it the most.
I didn’t talk to it at
first, maybe because at that point I was relating to it from high up: I’d found
a rock on the cliffs, right off the path named after the famous poet this
village is known for—he used to go on walks there during the time he spent at the
castle. The rock has a beautiful view of the bay, and as soon as I was able to I
would head over there and sit on it for a long time, looking at the sea in
front of me and listening to the waves crashing at the bottom. The sound seemed
to come from very far away, farther than the shore really was, and for some
reason that made it very soothing.
I still go to that rock
on certain days, but now I’m to be found mostly at the porticciolo. I started going there when it got warmer. I would sit
on a rock on the pier, often with a book—I almost never took a book to the rock
on the cliffs, I now wonder why. One afternoon, I decided to dip my feet in the
water. I’d just finished reading Marcel Schwob’s Book of Monelle—I’d found a copy of it in the library of the
apartment I’m staying in—and I felt that deep trust in the goodness of life that
certain books can instill in me.
“Don’t divide reality
between life and death. Instead, say to yourself: ‘Right now I live and right
now I die.’” There was so much to ponder in the words of that mysterious girl
named Monelle, but that aphorism was the one that stuck with me then. Maybe it
was the fact that the question of the distinction between life and death had
been preoccupying me for a while—as had the question of the presence of death
within life. I remember reading those words and really understanding for the
first time something I’d heard before but hadn’t fully grasped: that death,
rather than being outside or beyond life, is instead something that is woven
into the latter and is practically indistinguishable from it, present in every
failure and in every disappointment, in everything that doesn’t quite go as
“Don’t be surprised,”
Monelle says. “It’s me and it’s not me. You’ll find me again and then you’ll
lose me. I’ll come to you once more, because few men have seen me, and none of
them has understood me. And you will forget me, and then you will recognize me,
and then you will forget me again.” As I sit on this rock, I think about this young
girl who emerges from the fog at night in order to carry out her benevolent
mission, only to disappear into the darkness soon afterwards. Schwob, I read,
fell in love with a young prostitute who died of tuberculosis three years later.
Reading his book, I also understood for the first time (truly understood, that is) that it’s possible to transmute the most
intense pain into something beautiful.
“I have come from the
night,” Monelle says when she appears, “and I will go back into the night.” She
also says: “I take pity on you, my love.” Those words brought back memories. It was after I read them that I decided to deep my feet in
A few days later, I went
in. The water was very cold—it had gotten warmer, but winter wasn’t yet over—and
as I entered it (slowly, so as to gradually get used to it) I made a vow of
sorts: I promised to go in every day, not matter how cold it was. That’s when I
started talking to the sea, or rather to pray to it. Because when I talk to it
(I continue to do so) I’m really asking it for something: “Please wash away my grief,”
I say to it. I have no doubt that it can listen to me and that it’s doing as I’m
asking, even if my grief is nowhere near being gone.
I swim along the cliff, often
as far as the rock that sits at the bottom of the ruins of the old castle—not
the castle where the famous poet stayed but an even older one. I tend to think
of a commitment as having to entail an exact repetition of an action, so when I
made the vow to swim every day I initially thought I should do the same thing
each time and go where I’d gone before—to that same rock, that is. One speaks
of a “faithful” reproduction, the implication being that repetition can be a
form of fidelity. In my case, such fidelity can sometimes be animated by fear:
I fear that my commitment will be seen to have wavered if I don’t do the exact
same thing over and over again, and that this will result in some kind of retribution.
This tends to manifest most acutely if I’ve been the recipient of a benevolent
action—and this because for some reason it seems obvious to me that the
retribution, if there is one, will be inversely proportional to the love I’ve
been shown. The most loving being can turn into the most hateful, and I might
suffer from that hate, if I don’t do as I’m expected. Thus I end up fearing
what actually wants to show me nothing but love. But I’m trying to change that—I’m
trying, in other words, to think of myself as essentially worthy of benevolence—so
when I swim now I don’t always go as far as that rock. Instead, I sometimes just
stay close to the pier. I’ve noticed lately that I’m no longer afraid
that the sea will stop answering my prayers.
There’s a man who comes
to the pier to fish. He’s here now; he just waved at me and smiled. We’ve
become friends. We started talking one afternoon. He and I were the only people
around—the wind was blowing furiously and the sea was very rough. He was
surprised when he realized I planned to go in the water. I told him about the
promise I’d made. He seemed to understand. He told me he was living with his niece
and that he was coming to fish while he waited to see if a job came through. He
pointed towards the shipyard and I asked him if that was where the job was, but
he shook his head and said it wasn’t.
I’ll often stay in the
pier until the sun has set, but sometimes I’ll sit down for a drink in one of
the restaurants in the porticciolo instead. My favorite one is called Dama Bianca. It has a beautiful terrace
overlooking the water. The building is from the 1950s. It’s white, and has a
large curved awning with lots of tables below. The tables are always covered in
white cloth and the waiters wear long black aprons. They serve mostly fish.
I sit there by myself.
These days I’m by myself most of the time. There’s the occasional visitor, friends
who happen to be passing through and are concerned about me. But aside from
those visits, which have been rare so far, I’m usually alone.
I’ve never been this alone
in my life, or this lost.
It took me a while to
learn the story behind the restaurant’s name. I could have asked—one of the
waiters, a kid from Argentina, would have been able to answer my questions. But
I preferred not to know. Then one day a friend came to visit me for a few days.
She was coming from Paris, and she’d brought a copy of Genet’s Miracle of the Rose with her. We went to
the pier one afternoon and took pictures of each other reading it. There was something
very romantic about the whole thing. After that we swam for a bit and then decided
to have a drink.
My friend said that the
name Dama Bianca made her think of a chivalric romance. I told her that I
associated it with a gothic novel. I imagined a lady dressed in white, or
rather the ghost of one, walking up and down the pier in the middle of the
night. Then, while paying for our drinks, I noticed an old sign I hadn’t seen
before, with what I assume had been, at one point, the logo of the place. It
showed the head of a woman (she looked like she could have stepped out of a Pre-Raphaelite
painting) and the curved neck and head of a swan. That made me wonder if the
name had something to do with the myth of Leda.
I finished paying and
went back out to the terrace. I was planning to tell my friend about the sign.
But I couldn’t see her anywhere. She was no longer at our table.
I finally saw my friend
on the far end of the terrace, next to the ramp that leads to a swimming area.
My friend was standing next to a man. The man was on a wheelchair and he seemed
to have just gone up the ramp. The man was talking, and my friend was listening
to what he said. At one point, the man pointed towards the old castle. My
friend turned to look in that direction and gave a nod. Then she saw me and
waved at me with a smile.
I approached. My friend
introduced us. The man was wearing only a bathing suit and had a protruding
belly which rested on his thin legs. He turned out to be the owner. My friend
explained that to me as she introduced us and the man confirmed it. My friend
then told me that the man had been explaining to her the reason behind the name.
The man gave a nod and proceeded to fill me in. I learned that the name originates
in a legend surrounding the old castle. There had been a time, the man said,
when the castle had been governed by a cruel and jealous castellan. This
castellan was often away for long periods of time, and he didn’t want his wife,
“a beautiful and meek lady,” as the man described her, to be seen by other
people while he was absent so he used to lock her up in one of the towers. One
day, upon returning from one of his trips, he had an attack of jealousy and
ended up throwing her down into the sea. But before she could touch the water,
she was transformed into a white rock. This was, of course, the rock I’d been
The man then mentioned the
swans that are often seen in the porticciolo.
My friend and I had actually seen one of them the day before. The man said that
there was a flock of them living nearby, and that some of them liked to come
near the restaurant—people sitting at the tables often threw pieces of bread
for them to eat. He then told us that the swans were often in the bay, gliding by
the rock below the old castle. It was their way of paying homage to the memory
of the lady in the legend. I mentioned the logo I’d seen, and asked if that was
the reason why there was a swan in it. He confirmed that it was.
I’d first seen one of those
swans a month or so before. Two friends who were visiting me around that time had
actually seen it first; they’d spotted it one afternoon when they went down to
the porticciolo. I was busy, so I couldn’t
go with them. My friends told me about it, and one of them said that it was
rare for a swan to be by itself, but I never found out if that was true. I finally
saw one a few days later—by then my friends had already left. There was no way
for me to know if it was the same one they had seen. I took a picture and sent
it to them, and asked them if they recognized it. They both said it could be.
Back at Dama Bianca the next
day, my friend and I started talking about Genet. I told her that while we were
taking those pictures the day before, I’d opened the book at random and had stumbled
upon a sentence I liked. I’d memorized it—the sentence wasn’t very long so that
hadn’t been hard. I recited it for my friend, in my best French possible, and she
said she liked it too. I then told her about something Virginia Woolf says in
her journals, something about taking sentences from great writers and expanding
them, and how I thought one could do something like that with Genet’s words. I
immediately regretted saying that, and told my friend that, while the idea
sounded nice, I actually wouldn’t want to do that.
My friend replied that perhaps
I could do something else with it. I might be able, for example, to use it as
an epigraph for something. That reminded me of a book I’d read not long before,
which had an epigraph by Genet, not from Miracle
of the Rose but from Prisoner of Love.
I told my friend how much I loved that title and she asked me if it was because
it captured something I feel to be true about myself. I took me a while to
answer her—a swan had come near the terrace, and I immediately found myself
thinking about a poem I’d had to memorize as a kid in school. It’s a poem about
poetry. A poet is searching for a form through which to convey his feelings. He
knows it exists, but he can’t seem to find it. Every now and then he comes close
to it, but the form is very elusive, and slips away as soon as he tries to
grasp it. He suffers a lot as a result. At the end of the poem, having accepted
he may never succeed in finding this form, the poet stands in front of a large fountain,
looking at a swan. The last line of the poem compares the swan’s curved neck to
a question mark. The poet is convinced that through that creature life is
asking him a question.
It’s been some time since
my friend left, but now that I’m sitting here I’m again thinking about her
question, wondering if that’s the question life is asking me. I told my friend—at
some point the swan went away—that in order to give her an answer I would first
have to know what it means to be a prisoner of love. I want to say, I told my
friend, that a prisoner of love is someone whose freedom has been taken away by
love. At least that’s what I understand a prisoner to be, someone whose freedom
has been taken away. But of course in the case of a prisoner that dispossession
takes the form of confinement—that is what defines a prisoner, as opposed to,
for example, a slave. While a slave’s freedom has also been taken away, I said,
he is not necessarily confined somewhere and deprived of the right to venture
outside of it. A prisoner, however, is. My friend said she agreed. Then she said
she had a question for me. Is a prisoner of love confined by love or within love? Surely
I understood the distinction, but surely I could see, too, how both could be true,
depending on what one took love to be, whether one thought of it as a subject—a
creature of some kind, a god, for example, capable, as any other subject, of
doing something to you, in this case of depriving you of your freedom by
confining you—or as a state of being. I told my friend that for me the title
suggested the latter, and that a prisoner of love is someone who is perpetually
in that state of being called love. That state of being is all he knows, I said.
And not just all he knows, I continued, because although it is a state of being
in the end that state of being expresses itself in an action: a prisoner of love,
I said, is someone who can’t do anything else but love. That, for me, is the
nature of his confinement. (I’m reminded now of what I thought about life and
death after reading Schwob’s book, and how if death really is within life we
cannot really venture outside of life, in which case we are all prisoners of
life.) After a brief silence, I told my friend that I had to admit that the
title of Genet’s book is not an accurate description of myself. I’m not a
prisoner of love, I said to her. I added right away, however, that the title does
express an aspiration—and that, I explained to her, might be the reason why I
like it so much. In other words, I said to my friend, I would like to be a
prisoner of love, I would like to be someone who can’t do anything else but
love. But I know I’m not, I said, with a bitterness that struck me and that
struck her as well—she made an effort to hide it, but she wasn’t very successful.
I’m in fact not a prisoner but a prison, I remember telling her, a prison for
my own love. I’ve kept my love imprisoned within myself, I said to my friend. I’ve
failed to set it free.