The hereafter

Our hotel room in Mantua

We are in bed reading Rachel Cusk books. My husband’s one is set in Italy.

“What was that town we went to?” he asks. “I think of it as Perugia, but it wasn’t.” We had taken long trips to Italy over two of the summers following college graduation.

I can see the hotel, it was a notch above our usual pensione, not counting the time we were given a room in the proprietors’ apartment because they thought we were on our honeymoon.

We carried a Blue Guide for the art and architecture and a Let’s Go Italy to avoid tourist traps. If a place was amazingly good value we slept there or ate there, but circumstances had forced us to splash out.

That summer, teens wore day-glo, smiley-face Ts that said things like, “I survived the acid party.”

At 24, 19 or 20 seems hopelessly young, while, equally, 28 is almost past it. In the pensione in Florence, we disdained the college kids in the sitting room and the English-language movie nights and took our morning coffee standing up a nearby cafe. A nice thing about not speaking the language is not understanding the conversations around you. While you miss out on the occasional gems that reward eavesdropping you are also spared a lot of banal chatter. To them, we must have seemed boring and old. If we had met someone from our college our experiences would not have overlapped. We’d have only professors and geography in common.

The town was in the mountains and we had taken a bus to get there. We had seen a Piero Della Francesca fresco. That night, there was an amazing thunderstorm and a cat howling and howling through it. We were missing Harry and The Wertis, wanting to rescue the cat. In Florence, the owner’s cat would sometimes lie on our bed. The hotel had furniture with matching upholstery and walls painted to match. It was a taste of the adult life we had just slightly begun to enter. But neither of us can remember the name of the town.

Stormclouds in Urbino

I go and get my journals. I had drawn a map. It was Urbino. It’s a good thing you wrote this stuff down, my husband says. He reads a dialogue I had with a leather salesman trying to sell me a jacket that cost way too much, his sales pitch, my demurring and his final exhortation: “Think of me when you think of leather!”

“Do you remember this?”

“No, do you?”

He doesn’t either.

I do not often think of leather.

“I wish I could remember all the art we studied,” he sighs. “Do we still have the Jansen?” This was the core text of the intro art history class we both took before we met. A parade of well-honed lectures delivered in darkness as we learned to analyze and compare works, follow gestures that indicated the center of the narrative.

Peach. Padua

“Yes, but what we really need are the University Prints, those had everything, all the slides.”

“Why would we have gotten rid of those?” he asks

Dude, because for the past 20 years, you have been saying things like, “What are you saving that for?” Because we have moved house many times in the intervening years. Because a lot of stuff was ruined in the storage unit we had when we left New York.

The other day a friend wrote to both of us. The night before we left London, we went to his birthday party in an apartment building close to my work in which every time we were looking at flats we were shown at at least one there. Both daughters had friends who lived there. We’d been in three of the flats socially and at least 10 commercially. We were sure at some point we would end up living there, against our will. Not that it was a bad building it just had an air of fate to it.

“What was it called?”

“I will have been in every flat in there by the time I die,” he muses. “Is there A-to-Z on Google? The name was in the A-to-Z.”

“Here, I have an A-to-Z. South Lodge!!”

Then we recall various HORRIBLE flats we looked at in London. One was really cheap in a not-awful building across from Lord’s. It was downstairs and you had to step up into each bedroom, one of which was a kitchen. Something bad had happened there. You just knew…

“It was on the cross-street of the big road that ran down into Maida Vale, what Abbey Road turns into, starts with an L. Seriously, I cannot believe I don’t remember the name of that street. It was by Church Street Market… big estate named for it…”

Stanley the Farmer brings us a chicken and a dozen eggs every week over the summer. My older daughter used to eat fried eggs for breakfast, but you know how kids are. Just when you have an organic farmer deliver their favorite food they’re onto the next crazy fad.

Thus, lots of eggs. I have a crème brûlée recipe burning a hole in my brain. For a long time, I have thought it would be nice to own a butane torch to burn the top, but something has held me back—it’s hardly one of the top 20 items you need to equip your kitchen. But, just as we were ready for that nice hotel in Urbino, maybe this is something I have finally arrived at.

Joking about the economics of such a purchase, my husband says we will probably only make eight creme brulees in our lives. I mean, how many creme brulees would you say you would make? I’m guessing more than that, but let’s say a hypothetical eight.

Last weekend I was thinking I’d make another one, but my husband said, We’ll use them up too fast.

What if we’re pretty old and I want to make one? Will we take the risk? With seven creme brulees notched on the recipe binder, it will be like O’Henry’s Last Leaf, a story my father read to me when I was little.

A dying man, well I had thought it was a man, but I just re-read the story. It was actually a lesbian couple. They were artists. It was set in Greenwich Village, very near to where I grew up, the streets doubling back on themselves, as described. Why, we had a lesbian couple in our building. But I digress.

Johnsy (Joanna) watches the ivy dying on a wall she can see from her bed. She knows she will die when the last leaf has blown away, but one leaf remains and she holds on with it and recovers only to find that their downstairs neighbor, a failed artist, has been taken ill and died. He was discovered curled up on the ground, paintbrush in hand. When they go outside to where he was found and look at the wall they see that he had at last painted his masterpiece.

It was a story my father would reference. He also liked these lines from Shakespeare:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

(Lisson Grove!!)

So maybe we will have the eighth dessert to hold out for, or else it will be me, walking around the house as I so often do, holding the torch, delivering the punchline to a joke my mother-in-law tells about age and failing memory, “Oh, I think about the hereafter all the time. I am always walking into a room and saying, ‘Now, what was I here after?'”


2 Replies to “The hereafter”

    1. Thanks, I did do the illustrations. I read Rachel Cusk years ago — Country Life — and then nothing else. Read Arlington Park this summer and realized I was missing out on a great writer. I’m catching up this fall!


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