We had to put my husband in an asylum. My daughter corrects me whenever I use this word; it’s a psychiatric clinic, Mother, she says. According to my daughter it was the earthquakes that unhinged him. I disagree, and I’ve obviously known him longer though not necessarily better.
It began with small things; a few Euros dropped into a gypsy’s outstretched palm at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio, culminating in my husband signing away the title to a beautiful old farmhouse, our vacation home. This casa colonica, built on ancient Etruscan foundations overlooking Lake Trasimeno (a jewel that had been in his family for five hundred years) now belongs to a quasi-religious group called CIA (Chiesa Intergalattica d’Amore), believers in a pantheon of extraterrestrial divinities. What a group of alien worshipers needs with a 16th century farmhouse confounds me; I suspect they were after the pool. The lawyers are still trying to undo the damage, but this is Italy after all, which is sort of like another planet, and I will likely be bones and dust before anything is resolved.
For 20 years my husband was a docent at the Universita di Firenze, disgorging upon a generation of students his eye-glazing theories regarding Renaissance architecture, his tether to reality loosening almost imperceptibly year by year. But I saw the fraying in the material of his unease and I observed its unraveling with a tailor’s detachment.
My husband’s relationship to his possessions and property (books, clothing, automobiles, bank account, houses) has always been characterized by ambiguity and distance, and I’m probably engaging in a bit of understatement here. It always seemed to me that he was in a perpetual state of unburdening; trying to slough off his connection to material things, attempting to defy life’s gravity, but with such clumsiness or ill luck that he could never attain the degree of weightlessness that he sought. And that, I believe, is what drove him insane.
* * *
My father is surrounded by disturbed individuals. My mother, sister, and brothers are hoarding what appear to be inexhaustible supplies of excuses for not visiting him, so by default I have become his principle liaison with the world outside the clinic walls. They even avoid his phone calls. But sometimes silence is best. There is always a clamorous din when I go to visit my father. We usually sit in the hexagonal-shaped courtyard and talk, but I am often unnerved by the actions or appearance of one or another of my father’s fellow patients (my mother calls them inmates, and I have tired of correcting her), so my father tries to will a discrete zone of silence around us, but I hear their cries just the same.
When I went to visit him shortly before the last earthquake, my father told me that he’d seen the singer Luana Lipari. In a dream? I asked. No, he said, right here in S. Stefano degli Innocenti. That’s impossible, Papa, I told him, she’s dead; you know she’s dead. Maybe she is and maybe she isn’t, said my father. I looked up and saw black clouds like predators stalking the sky, devouring fragile wisps of white cirrus that had been floating above us for the past hour. I felt the thunder before I heard it. Tromba d’aria, said my father. I mumbled agreement and checked my watch. I have to go, Papa, I told him. He nodded. I know, he said.
* * *
They asked me what I see. This is what I see: clouds, shapes, thoughts. Most of all I see sadness. Sadness and pain. But I hadn’t seen Luana Lipari for a long time, that phantasmal figure with the obsidian voice of an angel singing about beauty, about contentment, despite the broken world she’d inhabited while she lived. That there is much beauty in Italy is indisputable, I suppose. That contentment exists in Italian hearts, sanity in Italian heads … not so much. I suspect that medication was to blame for her prolonged absence, although they are pretty parsimonious with the pills around here (even though it is private, not a State institution) and only the truly deranged are heavily medicated. So maybe it wasn’t the pills after all.
Anyway, what I was telling you was that I hadn’t seen her in a very long time and then, when the world began to shiver, I saw her. Right after the terremoto ended, I knew that everything was going to be all right. Or maybe at the exact moment that disaster struck, everything resolved itself to avoid obliteration. About twelve hours after the earthquake, when Telecom Italia had restored phone service, I called my family to let them know that I was all right. My daughter answered. Was there much damage there? she asked. Not really, I replied. It’s a mess here, she said (they live in Trestina, a town near Perugia, just a few kilometers from Citta di Castello, the epicenter of the event). Are there many dead? I asked her. No, not too many, said my daughter, but a lot of people were injured. Anyone we know? I asked. Not that I am aware of, she said.
Then I asked to speak to my wife. She’s gone to the Ospedale Civile to give blood, said my daughter. That’s interesting, I said, usually she wants to take it, not give it. We had a little laugh about that, my daughter and I. Sometimes I think you’re not crazy at all, my daughter said. I’m not crazy, I said, just a little confused sometimes. Well, said my daughter, you’ve been a little confused for a long time. Time is a continuum, I told her, thinking about friends and people that I hadn’t seen for so long, and people I’d never known who might or might not have died in the earthquake. I’d get you out of there, Papa, if it were up to me, said my daughter. I’m in no particular hurry to leave, I said.
Then I thought about the violent history of our peninsula, of earthquakes rolling out of ancient Esperya, through the centuries into Etruria, the earthquakes of the Roman Empire thundering toward the present like the cohorts of triumphal legions marching toward immortality, or doom. If it were up to me, said my daughter, I’d get you out of there today. Don’t worry about me; I told her, you’ve got enough problems of your own.
She was very quiet then and didn’t say anything for a few moments. I told her that when the earthquake hit, patients who weren’t restrained fell right out of their beds and there was no one to help them because the doctors and nurses and orderlies all panicked and ran into a nearby field away from any structures where they waited out the aftershocks for several hours. What the fuck? exclaimed my daughter. I know, I said. So what did everyone do? she asked. Not much, I told her. Some prayed. Others wandered the halls and courtyards. Most continued sleeping in their beds or on the floor where they’d fallen. That was lucky, said my daughter, it’s amazing that no one was hurt. Where were you? I asked her. I was at a friend’s apartment in Perugia. What happened? I asked. Nothing, said my daughter; a few pictures fell, but that was all. Nobody was hurt? I asked. No, she replied. And none of our friends were killed? No, none, replied my daughter. Are you sure? I asked. Positive, she said. You and I are so different, I told her. You are so much more like your mother. Why? What do you mean? she asked. I mean that even though I haven’t left this institution, I know that at least one friend must have been crushed in the earthquake, buried beneath a pile of rubble. No, Papa, my daughter insisted, nobody died. Never mind, I said.
A few days later, my daughter came to visit me at S. Stefano degli Innocenti (that’s the name of the asylum; Santo Stefano is the patron saint of thieves and liars, also bakers). We sat in the circular courtyard (all of the courtyards here have different geometric configurations) for a while, not talking, watching the other lunatics wandering around like wounded birds, or gurus, or royalty. Aldo, an old sculptor who thinks his feet are made of the Carrara marble he chiseled and polished every day for seventy-eight years (until his daughter and son-in-law tired of certain of his eccentricities and deposited him here), passed before the bench where we were sitting, pulling his left leg in front of the right, then pulling the right leg back in front of the left one again; a slow progression, painful to witness. Everything here is painful to witness, until it’s not. Is that shit in his hair? my daughter asked, wrinkling her nose like a nine year old. I confirmed that it was. He won’t let anyone touch him, I told her, so they wait until he takes his evening medication. It knocks him out. They clean him up while he’s sleeping, but when he gets up in the morning, the first thing he does is reach into his diaper for a handful and smear it through his hair; it is an example of symbolic logic. Taedium vitae, said my daughter, or at least that’s what I thought I heard her say. Then I think she began to cry, but I tried not to pay attention and I managed to succeed.
Do you remember Luana Lipari? I asked my daughter. I remember her music, she said. Then, sighing, she said, according to mother you didn’t know her, Papa. No, I said, that’s wrong. I was very close to her before she died. Across the yard, one of the younger patients was vomiting into a flower bed. You only began to believe this after her death, said my daughter. You’re wrong, I told her, we were very close. Well, said my daughter, we only have an hour, let’s not argue about it.
She began to tell me in detail about rescue efforts that were taking place in the region, work that she was participating in, or would have liked to take part in, or had observed at a distance. I couldn’t follow her because my mind had begun to wander again. Then she said that her mother was thinking about moving, about leaving Trestina for good. That got my attention. Where does she want to go? I asked. To Rimini, said my daughter, it’s outside of the earthquake zone. If it had occurred to me, I would have asked what they planned to do about me if they moved, but thinking of Rimini (perhaps the ugliest seaside town in all of Southern Europe), I forgot to.
Then my daughter was gone and I was alone with ghosts. Just me, Luana Lipari, and the lunatics of S. Stefano degli Innocenti. Her voice flowed through the late afternoon air like darkness pouring down into my ears, telling me not to worry, that if my family moved to Rimini, she would watch over me, that if they kicked me out of the asylum she would go with me. Then Luana asked me what was happening with music in Italy, whether I knew of any interesting new artists. The music is fine, I said, the young musicians are fine. They are all writing and recording; these earthquakes have inspired them. Don’t talk about earthquakes, said the voice of Luana Lipari, talk to me about music, tell me what else they sing about.
Suddenly I felt tired, a deep-down-in-the-marrow tiredness, and I said, they sing about everything, Luana, everything and nothing at all. Do people still listen to my music? she asked. Of course they do, I told her, you know how it is when you die; artists are never more appreciated than after they’ve died.
So they still listen to my music? she asked again. They still listen, I said. Don’t lie to me, said Luana. I’m not lying, I said, and closed my eyes.
When I opened them, the group of lunatics who roam this courtyard had formed a closed circle around me. A sane person would have been terrified, I suppose; wailing, trembling, looking for a way to escape, anything to get away from multitudinous eyes swirling like lost planets. But not me. I remained as still and quiet as the Elgin marbles, and just as misplaced. I watched their eyes. I looked at the ground. I gazed into the darkening sky above me, beyond them. The ground was brown with clumps of yellowing grass and grey gravel. The clouds sailed, an armada of floating shadows unmoored against the sky, charting an easterly course. I looked at the lunatics. They had begun to disperse, lurching here and there muttering, singing; sailors on the deck of insane destiny. Then I closed my eyes again.