How does a fat, breathless, middle-aged woman who sits all day in front of a laptop get ready to climb a volcano? This is a question I've been asking myself over and over since I decided to climb Mt. Etna. Why there and why now? Because my marvelous mother died and I miss her, and because life is so short: I will spend six days at Casa Cuseni in Taormina with my sisters and climb a volcano, and make no apology for seizing such extraordinary pleasure.
For Casa Cuseni, of course, I need no preparation—I'm always ready to sip Campari at sunset on a terrace overlooking the Ionian Sea as the towns along the mountainside begin to light up, always ready to share secrets with my sisters. But I have only four months to prepare myself for this volcano.
My son, who is an athlete, has designed a fitness regime for me. It begins with a little low-impact cardio and a modest amount of weight training which, he insists, will culminate four months from now in my running like hell on an incline treadmill, and then straight up the volcano to the triumphant strains of Rocky.
Before I go to the gym, though, I decide to do a little online research about Etna, which turns out to be the tallest active volcano in all of Europe. The half-day tour package buses you partway up the mountain to a creepy landscape where hundreds of steaming fissure vents spew sulfurous gas into the thin air. No climbing is required, but it only takes you halfway there.
To reach the summit, you need a full day, and stamina. You take a bus to the midway point, climb steeply for four grueling hours, have a look around, and then it's another four hours to fall back down the mountain. So much for hearing Rocky's Theme.
I remember I'm meeting Curt at the library and close my laptop. Curt always finds a pretext to pay me whenever we meet for coffee. First he pays for the coffee and then, right as we're leaving, he stuffs some bills into my hand. It bothers me that he needs to convert every exchange of ours into a financial transaction but he told me from the start that he won't see me if he can't pay.
Curt always pays for sex now. Not that he has to; he's tall, charming, attractive. At least I suppose he's attractive. I'm not really sure because when I look up at him I'm still able to see how he was at 17. He's my first love—we met when we were 17 and, before the bitter parting, we were together eight years. As I recall, the bitter parting was my idea. We hadn't seen each other for decades, until a couple of years ago.
I don't know exactly when he got into the habit of paying for sex. He pays now to keep me at a certain distance; he pays to have control. It's a wholesome impulse, in its way, to always clarify our boundaries and ensure equivalent benefits. Curt pays me not to have sex.
Curt sits beside me with two cups of coffee and I cry. I cover my mouth at first, but soon I abandon myself to it. We are alone in a smallish room full of windows. Wide, rectangular windows near the ceiling frame the bobbing heads of passersby walking back and forth outside, bundled up in winter coats, scarves, gloves, gray sleet falling onto their pinched faces. Opposite, the wall of windows overlooking the interior of the library presents a view of row upon row of books, an empty labyrinth. It reminds me how a stone outside the library is chiseled with the words of Jorge Luis Borges, I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. The plaque beside our closed door just says, "The Quiet Room." We inhabit an independent realm here, both private and totally exposed.
While I cry, Curt says nothing. He doesn't touch me. He seems neither surprised by the flood of my emotion, nor does he rush to dam it, as people so often do when facing each other's pain.
I tell him what I've told no one else, of the deep guilt I feel about something that is no longer within my power to change. After wasting the last year of my mother's life seeking help for her—every week more doctors, more PET scans, MRIs, x-rays, physical therapy, blood work, medications, side-effects—and false diagnoses—depression, infected gall bladder, "old age"—she died just a week after she was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer. She never complained during that year of suffering—perhaps because she was so intent on sparing me—she was merely grateful when I took her back to bed. "So good to be home," she would say after every outing. "So cozy. I love this room."
She died in the hospital, not at home as I'd promised. Her last words, repeated over and over as her speech began to slur, were simply, "I'm very uncomfortable."
I can't stop crying; as I tell Curt everything, the words boom in a shocking way inside our enclosed, quiet space. The words seem to shoot out between spasms of sobbing. Eventually, Curt digs into his briefcase and hands me a black bandana so I can dry my tears.
"It's clean," he says. But after I trumpet my nose into the hanky he smiles. "Ah, you keep that."
I feel something funny I'd never experienced before with him, or with anyone. It's hard for me to describe. The funny feeling is a bit like the way gears fit into place. I picture the delicate gears of a clock, moving each other in tandem. He has somehow transformed into the idealized Curt I write about—very calm and present, receptive and strong, with a flicker of something reckless and sad. He must always keep an eye on that little flame.
When I stop crying and begin to breathe normally again, Curt doesn't tell me what I expect to hear—that I did everything I could; he doesn't tell me I'm a good daughter or a good person. Instead he asks a question that stuns me.
"What would you have done differently?"
Another way to get to the summit—the shape of which is never the same due to Mt. Etna's constant seismic activity, and where, it turns out, there are four central craters—is to take a bus to a cable car. You have to pay extra for the cable car, a jeep, a tour guide, heavy boots, and a gas mask. If I can afford the cost of all that, I believe I will have paid for the privilege of hearing the opening bars of Rocky, whether or not my son agrees with me.
Mt. Etna has been active for 600,000 years and is characterized by its continual burning. The name for this ancient mountain comes from the Greek aitho, which means to burn. The Greek poet Pindar called it "the pillar of the sky." Aeolus, king of the winds, was believed to have imprisoned the winds in Mt. Etna. There are legends about a mighty giant—variously called Typhon, Vulcan, and Enceladus—whose thousand, hissing dragon heads reached to the stars and who had a thousand viper tails instead of legs. This giant tried to overthrow Zeus, the king of all gods, who consequently trapped him inside the volcano. Hephaestus and a cyclops are said to use the the inside of the volcano as the forge where they make thunderbolts for Zeus.
Empedocles, the ancient Greek philosopher, believed in reincarnation and wrote poetry about the interplay between Love and Strife, the divine powers of attraction and repulsion that move the universe. He committed suicide by throwing himself into one of Etna's burning craters. It is believed that he sought immortality through this action. Horace refers to Empedocles in Ars Poetica when he declares that poets have the right to destroy themselves. The realm of Hades, the world of the dead, is also thought to lie below the mountain.
What would I have done differently? I have no idea, and this, too, comes as a surprise. Curt and I look at each other and blink, patient and blank as if no question were hanging between us. I turn the question around and around, fearing the worst and, from any angle, I can see that I have done the very best I could with what I had. What I wanted to happen could not have happened.
During her last year, my mother had recurrent nosebleeds. She wouldn't call out to me, so I never knew how long she'd been bleeding, but I could guess by the amount of blood on her face, hands, chest, and bedding. If the bleeding didn't stop after I'd applied pressure for awhile, the ambulance would come to take her to the Emergency Room and cauterize. This happened again and again, without warning.
I have a recurring dream that my mother is in bed, covered with blood, and I am cleaning her with a wash cloth. I'm thinking, in the dream, about how I'll have to change her nightgown, and wash and change her bedding, how it could happen all over again in an hour, and then I'll have to wash and change everything again, how I need to buy more sheets, and how her medical insurance won't pay for home help because they say she's not sick enough. I'm so angry and tired. I look at my mother's face then, covered in blood, and she looks back at me, patient, trusting, and so full of love.
I will probably always feel guilty. Still, I can see that this seething, living feeling called guilt is caught inside an imaginary cage of my own design. I just can't let it go.
What do I want from Curt? I don't want to ask. I see now it must be something ridiculous, or terribly unwholesome, if I don't even dare to ask myself the question. I recognize only the feeling, desire, but not its motive.
It's Curt's turn to open his heart to me. He tells me what he fears most, the thing that he dreads someday regretting. He begins stubbornly, without looking at me, as if forcing himself to tell me, but gradually he turns to me. The angle of his jaw is defiant but his eyes are searching, like he's trying to make out the shape of something in a dark room. I want to help him find it—peace and acceptance or a second chance. I want him to be able to trust himself—trust in his own gentle goodness, as I trust him—or simply for him to accept that he is capable of surviving the cataclysm, disappointment, regret, a broken heart. Whatever I say to him is irrelevant, but I give him my voice anyway, and my silence. I give him everything, whether he knows it or not, wants it or not, it doesn't matter.
Curt tells me what he remembers about my mother, about my relationship with her and about hers with him. Tears run down his face and he makes no effort to conceal his emotions. He keeps talking, and weeping, till he's finished what he has to say. And then we get to work.
We sit beside each other in The Quiet Room and, as always, I type something for him on my laptop. He inverts sentences from one of his earlier texts and reads the scrambled words aloud. If it wasn't for this work, he would never see me. There's no room under the table for his long legs, so one of them rests against mine, just for a few moments. He lifts his chair and moves himself exactly two inches away from me.
Curt dictates and I transcribe; my fingertips on the keyboard move as fast as they can to keep pace with him. I do as he tells me. While my fingertips respond to his voice, I wonder what he would say if I proposed paying him for his time? How much for some leg, Curt? How much to lean over and give me a hit of your aftershave? How much extra for your tongue on my neck? For your kiss? To remove each piece of clothing? How much to show me all of your anger? How much to tell me you love me? Exactly how much would it take for you to give it all up?
What I want. What I want. Such a selfish, destructive bitch I am, at heart. I'm not convinced I want the ideal Curt I write about and I know I don't want to be 17 again. I just want to remove this man's boundaries, one after another. I want his heat, and I want everything blurry and too close. I want what I don't deserve. I want yellow violets and rare butterflies. I want to feel the kind of tenderness that only comes in the aftermath of a great violence. I want.
I want no regrets, but how can I predict which will cause the greater regret, telling him or not telling him what I want? We say goodbye in the parking lot by the elevator; he presses the button to go up and disappears when the door slides shut. I walk down a flight of stairs to the basement, where my car is parked. I mentally tick off things I have to do, a step at a time. Buy groceries, do laundry, cook dinner, pick up my son, eat dinner, load the dishwasher, call the lawyer, burn my bridges, tell Curt.
Etna is a landscape of extremes and contradictions: while it continually burns, its top is perpetually covered in snow. Volcanic soil is strangely fertile; the earth is enriched with minerals and nutrients from the decomposing flora submerged beneath the lava. Vegetation varies depending on the altitude. At the foot of the volcano are orange, mandarin, lemon, olive, agave, Indian fig, banana, Eucalyptus, palm, and pine trees. Higher up grow hazelnut, almond, pistachio and chestnut trees, then oaks, birches, and beech trees. Above 2,100 meters, the semi-desert zone begins, with a shrub called Holy Thorn, as well as a variety of violets that grow nowhere else on earth, just here, along the slopes of Etna's secondary craters. The highest peaks are volcanic desert where snow and fresh lava prevent the growth of any kind of vegetation. Here live a strange assortment of creatures—porcupines, foxes, wildcats, weasels, martens, dormice, kestrels, buzzards, finches, woodpeckers, hoopoes, insects, and vipers. The area is also home to a rare variety of butterflies.
To see a video of Mt. Etna erupting makes me feel nothing but serenity in the face of that surreal danger. Only when I think to turn on the sound, and I hear the intimate hiss and crackle issue from the volcano between thunderous booms, am I awestruck. This surge of fear gives me pleasure, incomparable pleasure.
Sitting in my car in the supermarket parking lot, I tear off the bottom margin of my shopping list and on it I write, in my smallest, steadiest handwriting, the words I want to tell Curt. Then I roll up the paper between the palms of my hands, curling it up into a tight little ball, like an insect protecting itself, and I crush it. I stand up, push my handbag over my shoulder and lock the car door. I glance at my shopping list as I cross the parking lot and roll the bit of paper in my other hand before throwing it into a garbage bin by the door of the supermarket. Before I open my hand, though, I change my mind and turn around.
I decide to go to the gym instead and stop off at home first to change. Before removing my clothes, I pull the tiny ball of paper out of my coat pocket and smooth it out on my desk with the side of a pencil.
Maybe if I'm just permitted to share a little of this feeling with Curt from time to time I won't need to be so restless. In meditation, you often hear people talk about "going to their happy place," that private place where they feel most at home and safe. Maybe my place is with Curt in The Quiet Room. But it's unlikely that Curt would choose that place for himself, and without his company, it's just a tomb.
Once the paper stays stiff and flat, like the little rectangle of a fortune in a Chinese cookie or a minuscule Tibetan prayer flag, I pull my passport out of the desk drawer and tuck the scrap of paper in beside my picture. If I don't tell Curt before I leave, then I'd like to throw my prayer into the volcano, the way Empedocles threw himself in, for immortality. But I must be gentle with myself, even if life is not. So, instead, I choose to bury my prayer in Mt. Etna's fertile soil, among the rare yellow violets that feed off the volcano and grow nowhere else in the whole world. This is how I prepare myself, so I may always know a part of me is at peace, even while another part roars.