At the Edge of an Island

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Mt Vesuvius from Capri — 2019 Photo by William E. Evans

The weather was changing, Edwin could feel it. Getting chilly with the rising wind, and his arthritic knee was already aching–meaning weather to come. He tucked the afghan around his legs and under the seat of the wheelchair. Out on the sea, one moment sunlight was whitening the wave tops and the next veiling clouds turned the water to shades of silver to gray and back.

Should he stay where he was by the promontory or retreat? The thought of being soaked before he could get back to the villa was an irritant to an otherwise fine afternoon, particularly because he knew the rest of the week would hold no time to repeat it–he’d over-committed himself. And this was supposed to be his time to retire.

Early that morning, the dream had startled him awake with its vividness, sending him tumbling back years to a previous day when he had made the trip from villa to this overlook on his own good legs. Legs that had betrayed him–or he they. The car accident was his, after all. Now he was living his own version of a Henry James novel.

The dream centered on a fading memory of an affair from years past–so long in his past that, viewed from present circumstance, it seemed he had been living a different life, heading in a far different direction.

He had first discovered the old world villa on a day trip to Capri–and a woman who showed him his life. Thirty years ago, thirty-five, perhaps. Was it that long ago? Turning forty and finding her in the same breath was like a violent storm and bright sunshine in a single package–the storm of being gone from his thirties, abysmally lost to himself then discovering a way forward in the light of her eyes. Offering him salvation no doubt without intending to. She wasn’t an indifferent soul. She was just too passionate about living that she sometimes forgot lesser mortals needed time to catch their breath.

In a Positano bakery. On the Amalfi Coast. Being served bitter coffee and an apricot croissant, it started simply enough. He had watched her enter, looking somewhat tousled, her eyes betraying a lack of sleep and a wide yawn her hand hardly covered. For all of that, she was fetching. As her gaze scanned the small room, she paused briefly to take him in along with the rest of the scene.

She surprised him on approach. “Is this seat available?” with a clipped, English accent.

And if it had been taken, he’d have said yes anyway. Edwin cleared away the newspaper with alacrity.

“Edwin,” half rising and holding out his hand.

“Violet,” she shook it with extended fingers, juggling cup, carafe and plate with the other hand. “You’re up cheerfully early. Leastways early for me.”

By their first several hours with refills, not moving off, and the waiter giving them the bald eye more than once, she laughed and said they’d better leave before they were tossed out.

“He’s just jealous.”

“Jealous?”

“Of me!”

With a hand, Violet flipped hair from her face and grinned. “Sure of that, are you? Saucy to say, Edwin.”

They strolled the narrow village street that made another serpentine bend every block or so, emerging at places directly alongside a guardrail and the vertical drop below to the green water. No walkway against the waterside so they walked in the street. The traffic was desultory, like no one was rushing to be anywhere, not nearly what it would become in forty years.

“Lord, How do people here get any work done? Look at this view!” with a small skip and a sweep of her arm.

Wandering, she led him into card and trinket shops along the way, pausing to hand items, turning tea cups over to read their bottoms, then into a clothes shop, lifting sweaters to appraise them, judging the effect. “Do you like this one?”

What he saw best were her green eyes. The sweater she finally chose was white, loose-woven cotton which she promptly draped across her shoulders, “For the sun,” paying for it in lire. “It goes nicely with my shorts, don’t you think?”

To his mind, the brief shorts went nicely with her slender, white legs.

She wasn’t so much a traditional beauty as she was fully present in the way she lived in the world. Slight frame, with a runner’s body–cross country in college, she explained with a wave. And her hair–not unruly yet never quite coiffed with gold highlights from time in the sun. Freckles, he remembered. The freckles ran across her shoulders like a track he learned to kiss, then breathe ever so lightly on her neck, behind her ear.

“I’ve never been to the isle of Capri. Have you?”

“Passed it on the ferry coming from Naples,” he laughed.

“They’re queuing up now, looks like. Over there,” gesturing. “Shall we?”

And like that they’d joined the line to board the ferry. It was cool in the morning with a golden sun barely warming the air. “Good thing I bought this,” tugging the sweater from her shoulders to throw it over her head, as the waves slapped the bow heading off into the blue Mediterranean. Had the Greeks sailed this far west? No doubt. They’d sailed the entire Italian peninsula.

The swell of the sea cut at an angle to the ferry’s course, leaning the boat one way then back, bringing her against him until he caught her waist, holding them both against the rail.

Grinning like the devil, she touched his cheek. “You should let your beard grow out.”

What had he intended to get done today?

The boat nudged the quay gently and they had arrived.

They squeezed on, the last two to make the run. The funicular appeared to climb straight up the side of the mountain. They passed houses perched on impossibly vertical plots. Standing that close, he smelled her perfume, just faintly. Everything about her was like that, casual and intentional, easy contradictions. Were the English all this unaffected?

Reaching the small plaza, they disembarked, pausing to take it in. This was Piazza Umberto–village shops running off on twisting lanes never visible for more than several buildings, shop owners sweeping the stoops, workmen leading donkey carts, an old man sitting on a stone wall smoking his pipe like time meant nothing more. Always over their shoulders, the sea, and in the distance Mount Vesuvius in the clouds.

Edwin remembered making a glorious time of it with Violet in Capri–in those days before boatloads of tourists like locusts swarmed over the fairytale rock.

That first visit with Violet, he missed much of the island’s details, being thoroughly distracted by the way she posed unconsciously on the ferry crossing over, then as she wandered the island, leading him then returning with a broad smile. She wasn’t a flamboyant personality, more relaxed, graced with privilege though not flaunting it, modest yet driving him to distraction with her light airs–and her laugh that said the world was worth living in again.

The dancing air was what he remembered. Alive with the flavors of the blue sea about the isle. This place had been populated since before Rome, and it was easy to understand why. His first trip, he hadn’t expected to be quite as taken by southern Italy, and he hadn’t expected to be enraptured by her warm presence beside him, either.

Edwin was happy–happiest he’d been in a long time–happy to simply breathe this air and to be sharing his elation with Violet. Was it possible to fall in love with someone he barely knew? The need for it, his longing, had been with him for the past five years or more, but the actual fact of it? Was this rational behavior? And if it wasn’t, what did that say about her? He knew by instinct she wasn’t an irrational woman. Or he hoped she wasn’t. For a lifetime he’d been skeptical of perfection–in people, in a life–yet it was being offered to him now.

Wandering the Via Krupp paralleling the shore below, they passed other couples, some with children and some past that age. Via Krupp–surprising to find a route named for the Kaiser’s favorite arms industrialist on an island so removed from that place and time. Always with the blue sea beyond as a reference.

“Do you have children, Edwin?”

“Two. Two boys.”

So they sat on the low retaining wall while the world passed, and he talked of the fiasco of a long marriage to a woman he’d known since college. And no doubt, the way he told the story, Edwin’s wife–his ex-wife–played the villain. He didn’t mean to make it sound like that, but when Violet said, “It must be hard, not being with them,” her quick, gentle sympathy touched him. It was indeed hard. Hard bearing the separation and hard not sharing it more deeply than the light hand she laid on his arm–he so wanted more.

“It must be still ahead of us. The map shows the street peters out near there.”

He remembered her voice–light, slightly hoarse.

Villa San Michele. What had made them stop there? They had had the entire island and but half a day to see it, still this was where they’d hiked to. He still wondered why.

They nearly walked right by it trying to reach the water, or a view of it at the least. Still a private residence in those days, the gate was ajar, so they sidled in, slipping past the villa, down the long, wisteria-draped arbor to this outpost overlooking the Mediterranean. With statues mounting the low wall, it was a spectacular view, a hundred feet or more above the clear blue water, waves splashing the rocky shore below, like a movie shoot in Malibu.

“Oh, Eddie, what a dream!”

Not trusting himself, Edwin’s only comeback was to wrap his arms around her–until the gardener rushed down the arbor yelling in Italian plus a few universal gestures.

His first visit to Capri, he and Violet came on the ferry and returned on the last boat to Positano as the sun fell into the water in the boat’s wake.

Did he beg to sleep with her that night in Positano? Possibly–most likely. Neapolitan pizza and beer for dinner, then watching the lights turn on around the harbor wrapped in each other’s arms. That first night they had spent naked and talking freely, making love then telling stories. She told of a neighbor she’d had sex with when younger–secondary school age–how they’d done the deed after school when no one else was home and how they’d tried out positions, she not-coyly saying she liked sex in all its forms. He told her he’d been a virgin until college, wanting her to believe he was what, innocent? Not so innocent with children, but still innocent of heart–it was important she knew that.

She was two years out of college and he was the caricatured older, divorced man. Hardly a healthy, risk-free match, though he scarcely slowed down to consider it. He lost himself to touching her–watching her listening to music with eyes closed, and touching her often as she encouraged him. She liked her small breasts stroked, even more her nipples pulled bringing her closer to orgasm, and she loved when he breathed lightly on her neck, like it was some kind of heady aphrodisiac. She sought to ride him as much as be beneath him, legs wrapping his waist. Wasn’t there a way to keep this going, to keep her from never leaving him?

Subsequently, each trip he made to the small island revealed more clues to the Villa San Michele’s more glamorous past when famous people came, writers and artists, the intelligentsia before World War II laid Europe low. The villa had been the ambition of a wealthy Swedish physician. Edwin lived comfortably enough, but wealth at this scale was beyond his. It was an extravagance to stay the summer. Why he kept returning to the scene, he couldn’t explain even to himself. And he’d given up thinking the poems he’d written in the aftermath were much good, mostly just plain misery put to paper.

The wind was picking up, and the storm from the south had spread across the sky, hiding the sun. If he timed it, he could still make it back to the villa before the rain. Yet he still stayed.

Memories of past seasons were not always a gift. Some were just reminders of a vacant life. And his old age seemed no more graceful than the younger years. Where had they gone? Wasn’t old age supposed to be philosophical reflections on a life? Why was he still restless? Restlessness was for the young and he was no longer one of those, hard as it was to accept. Angst-ridden hours whiled away playing solitaire, what were they in the face of an hourglass quickly emptying?

She had told him assuredly she wanted children, three or four, and the way she said it suggested a time in the distance–a time not with him. Young as she was, children would need to be part of the deal, and even at a late date in his own life, he was agreeable to give them to her. Raise them like his own–they would be his. It would be like starting over, something he badly wanted. Though when he talked about his own sons, she grew quiet, pensive. Something held her back–his sons weren’t hers and that mattered.

Though that second night spent in the hot tub playing a game of ‘where fingers wandered,’ his then hers–Jesus, but he could remember those nights! He still had energy to spare back then and still had a future.

The damn wind was disrupting his reveries!

They’d made love like no tomorrow–and there weren’t so many of those left with her–in the small walkup overlooking the tiny harbor in Positano. After a meal of fettuccine al fresco and local wine when they’d both laughed until they cried. Or whatever other clichés came to mind. Not that he had minded clichés; he’d been too busy being one.

Could the older Edwin ever have persuaded the younger Eddie to slow down, not be so impetuous? No one else was able at the time. Back then he was too busy jumping off his cliff, scene at a time, and it was hard to watch the replay.

The end came abruptly, like a traffic accident he’d never seen crossing his line of sight. One week in Paris when she said she was suffering a yeast infection, the next in Zurich sleeping chastely apart like a long married couple — strangers again — then silence. She’d turned him off like an old clock radio. Calling, his messages got no answers, letters, then torrid email, even pathetic poems. Just like that. She’d as well have used a garotte on him–he wished she had. Chop, chop and he was sushi-grade tuna done for the carving. Billy Joel’s Stiletto described in a pop song the words he wasn’t willing to put to it.

Afterward, Edwin struggled to get on with his life, stumbling forth into the blinding light of normality–sanity being impossible.

Capri had been an outpost since Roman times. Augustus Caesar, the dude left his ruined villa for two thousand or more years of tourists to ogle. What was it about this place? View? You could see the sea from a thousand quaint places along the Mediterranean, so why chose this one?

Whipped by the winds, the rain was half way to shore in a veil of mist now moving quickly across the sea. Edwin swore, spinning the wheelchair around and yanked at the wheel rims hard as he could. He’d be soaked by the time he reached the villa, though he really didn’t care. Mundanity had never been his thing.

Written by

A practicing writer and architect, he is now squandering hours making a mess from writing.

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