It is often said there are those who play with other people's feelings, but it wasn't until speaking to a friend recently that I realised there are those who seem to play with them cartographically, who could have you mapping a city in a state of anticipation, or reflection. I hadn't seen the friend for some months, and the occasional email I would send him, the odd message I left on his answering machine, was always politely responded to, but, I sensed, with the preoccupied air of someone who had too many things on his mind to meet up with me. I knew he was working on a new album and this would usually be an immersive period, but it seemed that other things were obsessing him also. In one email I suggested a few of us were going to a party not far from my flat at the beginning of September and that he should join us. He replied that he had so many things going on that he probably wouldn't make it, but the absence of a concrete explanation left me thinking that he wasn't so much offering an excuse; more admitting what was going on was mainly taking place inside his head. Yet while I would find out why that happened to be so, at the same time the problem he had with his thoughts were manifest in the most peripatetic manner.
He told me on a wet afternoon in mid-October that he hadn't seen me all summer for a simple reason: that there was only one person he wanted to see and meeting up with anyone else would have felt like a disappointment. He emphasised the word and then explained it, wiping the damp hair back from his forehead, saying that even a text message or an email that was not from a particular young woman left him feeling vaguely resentful towards the sender. He knew that meeting up with me, or any of his other close friends, would have been an opportunity to talk about the situation (which he couldn't quite articulate), or to settle for a bit of herd warmth while his mind was on other things, his nerves aligned to a missing body. So instead he devoted his time to obsessing over her as he asked me if I remembered who she was.
He said they met in the early spring at a party; the same flat as the party I'd invited him to in September, and as he described her I kept from him information that I thought might have hurt him or infuriated him. As he said she was a woman in her late twenties with bobbed, black hair, and an open face showing dimples when she smiled, and eyes that looked like they conveyed an innocence she couldn't quite understand, I said that of course I remembered her. I had talked to her for twenty minutes earlier in the evening before Paolo arrived, and thought that she looked better than she sounded: it was a face I would have liked to observe more than talk to, and I would be inclined to explain this now through the difference between those who engage and those who enchant, yet she didn't at first seem like an enchantress. It was as if she were an accidental seducer rather than a deliberate one. I suppose what I mean by this is that there are those who know their finest qualities and announce them quite quickly in the game of seduction. A person with long legs wearing a short skirt crosses them in a manner that says she knows you know they are beautiful. She smiles and this tells you that she knows that many people have commented on her amazing smile. Yet there are others who seem to seduce if not against their will, then without all the arsenal of their preconceived charms. I knew of one woman who would pull her jacket hood over her head in the most innocent and charming manner and I would feel an instant tenderness for her; another who would put her fingers to her lip every time she was trying to think of something. Then there were those who would engage rather than enchant, and after talking to them for an hour I would almost forget there was a face in front of me, a body attached to that mind, until they would get up and go to the bar and order another drink, or go to the bathroom, and I would be reminded once again of the attractiveness of the person with whom I was engaged.
At that party, before Paolo arrived I would have seen Sophia as the accidental seductress, though luckily she revealed no particular gesture that instantly captured my feelings. I assume Paolo was caught by several of them and, indeed, as I explained to him my micro-theory of enchantment and engagement, and the two types of enchantment, so he tried to convey what he felt that evening when he first saw her.
He said he noticed her as soon as he walked in the main door. He turned to the left and saw around twenty people in the roomy kitchen next to the entrance, and observed her looking at him as he stood at the kitchen's threshold and smiled as though somebody should welcome this stranger who appeared to have come alone. This is at least was how he perceived it, he said, though he knew of many people at the party, and had, of course, intended to arrive with me and three or four others. Yet it was that moment he decided instantly that she was a nice person, a caring, considerate individual who noticed not just his presence instantly, but also, he assumed, what she saw as his vulnerability. I am sure that is what she saw in him, but I also feel, now, that what he saw in her was less tenderness than a capacity for the attentive.
I have some friends who don't believe at all in love at first sight, others who do; still others who think it is just a biological fact that we find various people instantly attractive and with most of them we don't get the chance to make contact or, if we do, often discover they disappoint us next to that immediate impression. Yet Paolo would talk of tenderness as first sight, and he was the only friend I knew who would couch this most important of feelings in similar terms to me. I am sure there is much in the science of attraction, that when you see someone you like physically there is increased activity in a region of the medial prefrontal cortex, called the paracingulate cortex. Yet I think the question is one of tenderness over attractiveness, even if the two cannot easily be separated. No doubt one reason why Paolo and I became close friends so quickly after meeting each other, about three years ago at the start of his PhD, was because of a discussion on this very issue. That moment he saw Sophia was an instance of this immediate tenderness, and yet that night he didn't talk to her at all as she remained talking and dancing with others.
He made no direct attempt at contact, but would often look over in her direction, watching the way she would awkwardly move to the music, lacking the bodily confidence of a couple of her friends. A friend of his on the same programme at the uni saw him looking and said she didn't deserve that much attention: look at her ankles he suggested. He did indeed look, and yes the friend was right, they were thick though her body was not fat, and he wondered if this was why she danced with so little ease. Instead of the friend's remark having the intended effect of putting him off, he projected upon her even more. He saw someone with a beautiful face and ugly ankles, someone who would charm men with the former and disgust them with the latter. But he would not be put off by those ankles; he did not want her for her beauty, he reiterated, he wanted to find in her tenderness.
When he told me this I admitted to him that I had never really liked the friend who made the remark about her ankles: he seemed to me the opposite of a man who seeks tenderness in others; someone who instead sees chiefly the person's attributes over their qualities. It was as though he had a checklist of elements that a person required to be worthwhile. I remember shortly after meeting the tall, slender, quick-witted Giannini that he liked the instant judgement, and so I describe him here as he would have wished to see himself described. He was charming and intelligent, someone who could remember easily the difference between the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic, the diachronic and the synchronic, someone whose teeth were very white and his hair fashionably cut: short on the sides, longer on top, and flopping over to one side. Yet I am describing a man of attributes and not qualities, and in the years that I have known him, chiefly through Paolo and others, I have never felt comfortable in his company. I have always sensed a certain type of calculation at work within him: that he would judge you constantly on the words you would use, the clothes you wore, the references you picked up or not. Perhaps this is the best definition I can offer of a snob: someone who sees attributes and misses qualities.
I offered this to Paolo that afternoon in the cafe; he said he was not surprised. Some found Giannini insufferable, but he liked him perhaps because he knew that not long before arriving in the city he has suffered a great deal, and was still suffering a little when Paolo met him. He would hide this from people now, Paolo said, but he could still remember the weakness Paolo showed in those first two or three months in the city. His attitude to women, his incessant womanizing over the last couple of years, came from that sense of loss, Paolo believed. I didn't disbelieve him, but if it hadn't been for recent events I wouldn't have quite imagined the vulnerability in Giannini that Paolo had witnessed.
I asked him what happened after that evening, and he said at the end of the night he found a pen and a piece of paper in the kitchen, wrote down his email address and when he passed a friend of hers in the hallway he asked her to pass it on to Sophia (he had got her name from the party's host, and heard she was doing a Master's in translation). He added that he would like her to listen to some music he composed; it seemed consistent with the way Sophia danced. Sure, she said, as though she might forget to do it a minute later, but since he was quite sure Sophia wouldn't send him an email anyway it didn't really matter. He supposed he saw it as his purpose to do something, however cowardly. It was at least a gesture, and he was surprised when a week later he received a response.
In the email, she said it was very kind of him to comment on her dancing, and couldn't deny she was intrigued to know what sort of music could dignify her clumsy movements, but she would certainly like to listen to it. The following day he sent her six pieces and since I knew his music well I asked him which ones. Paolo's music was usually based on working with variations of well-known soundtracks, creating in the listener a sense of expectation and its suppression: you would be listening to Once Upon a Time in the West or to Taxi Driver and then suddenly it would change direction after a few seconds and then pick it up again a minute later. Yet the unfamiliar music was what people could dance to; the familiar music what they knew, and this was partly what his PhD was pursuing: this question of cultural familiarity against rhythmic assumption. Whenever he talked about this, he never presented it so schematically, and listening to the music I don't think anyone would feel a thesis was being worked out, but at a certain point, and that point was the PhD, he wanted to explore it analytically.
He didn't send her a reply; he waited until she contacted him again, assuming that if she didn't then she didn't like the music, and would be unlikely to like him. I wouldn't quite say Paolo seduced people with his music, but I think he was right to assume that someone who wasn't interested in it wouldn't be interested in a date. This had nothing to do with the celebrity writer or actor or singer who seduces people with their fame, as if the art is secondary to the status. This was Paolo's way of expressing who he was. And yet, of course, he would insist that his music wasn't an emotional biography either: just his way of existing in the world. If Sophia was interested she would comprehend him as readily through the work as she would seeing him look at her across a room longingly. Indeed when he said this I thought there was quite often in the music this sense of yearning. I mentioned to him the pieces based on Jules et Jim and Le Mepris, and he told me both of them were composed with a woman he had in his mind and briefly went out with not long before coming to Edinburgh. He couldn't pretend that part of the appeal of women was that they inspired him to work, and couldn't deny that part of his interest in music was that it inspired women to be interested in him. He offered this with a sheepish modesty as he spoke in a soft voice that was beautifully cadenced; hesitant yet never stalling, a voice soft but never high. If he would exaggeratedly refer to himself as not much to look at, I knew he was someone people would be more than happy to listen to; and yet I also thought about his walk too. He moved with graceful ease, and it occurred to me his life found its meaning and purpose in rhythm in its various manifestations. He was one of life's rhythmic people.
I guess it occurred to me because whatever abilities or charms I possessed were based more on force than rhythm. Sometimes people would say I had the habit of overwhelming them. While this may initially have appeared like a compliment, over the years it has also been applied if not as an insult then at least as a diagnosis. I have fallen out with various friends, and girlfriends have walked out saying that they found an oppressive aspect to me they couldn't quite explain. When chatting with others I would offer arguments and evidence, ideas and facts, and while most people were apparently impressed by this capacity I would have to marshal thought and shape it into a coherent form, after a while, for many, it became exhausting, as if, perhaps, dancing to an endlessly repetitive sound, however initially impressive. I always envied an aspect of Paolo's rhythmic suggestiveness against my own browed beat.
Anyway, Sophia got back to him saying she really liked the music and she would be happy to listen to more, and he replied saying he would also like to listen to her too. Could they meet up? She explained that she was very busy with an essay deadline over the next week, but would be available to meet up the following one. He emailed her after her essay would have been handed in asking if she was free. She responded a couple of days later saying that she would get back to him when she had time. He assumed it was an excuse; that she didn't want to meet up with him at all, but his nerves were stretched as he constantly checked his phone to see if an email had come in from her. It would have been better if she had just told him that she didn't want to meet up at all: with the reply she gave he felt hopeful and without hope simultaneously, and he couldn't sleep or work properly awaiting her response, or the absence of it.
He waited for a couple of weeks and then sent her another email, and more music. She replied within an hour apologising that she hadn't been in contact suggested a date that she was free, and gave him her number. He emailed back with his, saying that they could meet on Saturday afternoon (it was a Wednesday when he sent the email) and they could get a coffee at a destination of her choice. She got back to him naming a time and a place, and he was pleased they had managed to arrange plans so specifically. He mused over the afternoon they would have together, hoping they would enjoy each other's company enough for him to suggest they continue on for dinner. He thought about conversations they might have, but without at all rehearsing in his mind what he would say. If he had a fidelity to anything it was the contingent I remember him once saying: he always disliked the premeditated.
The morning of meeting her he burnt a CD of a few of his pieces, made up a cover specifically with Sophia in mind, and put both in a CD box with the loving care he assumed someone would show putting a baby to bed. Each aspect of the gesture was filled with tenderness; he hoped she would appreciate it. Afterwards, he went for a long walk, hoping to release some of the nervous energy he felt and didn't want too obviously to show Sophia. As he walked through the Grange, up on to Morningside, down by Fountainbridge, and out near Haymarket, walking on streets with big houses before coming out at Princes Street, he thought about how special he found the city. It is often said people like to feel close to nature, but in most cities it is a displaced wish: looking forward to the weekend away. But in Edinburgh it is a statement made at the same time it is a pleasure enjoyed, and while I might be rephrasing Paolo's words, it is only because I share entirely this particular sentiment. I have often myself wandered through the city as though wandering through nature, and many a time it has alleviated a tension a more hectic urban area would have exacerbated.
He walked at a steady stroll, determined to avoid the trickle of sweat that would often gather and travel down his spine when he would whisk through the city in a fury of thought, working out songs in his head as if trying to find a harmony in music to match that of nature. When he arrived at the cafe he was relaxed and cheerful, even exchanging a few witty remarks with a French waitress as he ordered a flat white in his second language. He wondered as he spoke not only three languages but happened to be accumulating all these new words in English as well, if he was suffering from neologistic, lingustic overload: that good old Italian words were being buried under so many new, English ones. Sometimes he would struggle to find words that expressed his feelings or described his thoughts, with words like flat-white, streaming, downloading, uploading and acronyms like SMS, VLC and PAP and so on crowding out others. I suspected we have replaced the Ancients' notion of a technology of self with a self-absenting itself because of technology. The robots are softening us up for the takeover I offered with a smile. He said that though he had heard one of the easiest things to get a robot to do was dance, he wondered if rhythm was what made us human.
I offer this here as if Paolo's telling was constantly interrupted by these thoughts and observations. Occasionally they were, but I suppose I am amalgamating several conversations into one, partly because I think some of these other thoughts somehow bring out the nature of this story, the degree to which Sophia fascinated Paolo, and why his tale has fascinated me.
He had arrived at the cafe thirty minutes early and had taken with him a book he was reading about the history of music, and a pad and pen to take notes. By the time 330 had arrived he had read only a few lines and written down one brief passage from the books. Each time the cafe door would open he looked up, and he would notice it wasn't her with no more than an observation. But when 330 came and 4 o'clock went, each time the door opened he was filled with hope within anxiety. He stayed till five o'clock but she didn't come. He looked often at his phone but received no message. He left the cafe and walked again, this time in the reverse direction, and in a completely different mood.
The next afternoon he received an email from Sophia saying that she hadn't been feeling well, that she had been out the previous evening, drank a little too much, and left her phone at the friend's place. She didn't have internet access at her flat but could only tether through her phone, and of course didn't have it on her. She apologised and said she felt awful knowing that he would have been sitting in a cafe waiting for her to arrive. He hoped she would accept his apologies. Perhaps they could meet up before she would go back to Italy: she was going back for a couple of weeks. She was leaving in five days' time.
He wondered how he should respond. Had she made the whole story up; and if not, and was telling the truth, he somehow thought she hadn't given much of a sense of priority to their meeting: what exciting, drunken party had she been to the night before? She might not have lied, but had she omitted some details? Perhaps she had left her phone but taken something else home: a man she had slept with and that she couldn't get out of bed the next day because she had been sharing it with him. Numerous thoughts went through his mind, but he was struggling to find positive ones that meant he could agree to another appointment without appearing like a masochist.
Yet a few hours later he did reply. He said he was busy over the next few days but he could meet her on Thursday afternoon (she was flying on Friday). If she could make it then that would be lovely. He managed he believed to convey in the email a tone that said his feelings were not especially hurt, but that his time had been wasted. He would give her another chance, but this would be the last opportunity she would have to waste any more of that time. She replied that evening too, suggesting, he supposed, that if a man had been in her bed the previous night he wasn't in it that evening. In the email she said that Thursday afternoon would be great, and she was pleased that he had forgiven her. She would meet him in the same cafe.
He had been working in an almost empty library (it was by now the summer holidays) all that Thursday morning and into the afternoon and it created in him an odd complicity with Sophia that he might not have felt a few months earlier. There they were both post-graduates at the university occupying a half empty city, but it also occurred to him that this might have been why she decided to meet him at all: friends of hers were no doubt away. A momentary feeling of well-being was replaced by a sense of despondency: his feelings were capable of melodrama requiring no event and yet melodrama there was to be a little later when he went outside and got on his bike. It was twenty past two and he was to meet her at two thirty. Yet as he cycled off the chain got caught between the rear of the frame and the cassette. He tried pedalling back to pull it free but it was firmly stuck. Occasionally when he was in a particular gear it would slip out of place but hadn't for a month or two and he surmised it was the abruptness of his gear change and his determination to get to the cafe on time that made him slip gears too quickly. He locked the bike up again, and set off on foot, knowing that even at a brisk pace he would arrive ten minutes late. And of course, his phone had died.
Now if there is such a thing as temporal morality we might assume that he had no reason to feel that he was letting Sophia down by arriving a few minutes after the designated time. What are ten minutes next to twenty-four hour hours he endured before she emailed him? And at least he was going to turn up. Yet, of course, he was worried that even arriving a minute late would give her the excuse to leave, but couldn't it just as readily give the impression that he wasn't so keen; that he wouldn't always have to be the one waiting? I suppose he must have allowed various thoughts like these to pass through his mind as he said that the day was very warm, and he knew that if he walked too briskly he would arrive with his T-shirt damp on the back and wet under the arms. He had literally to keep his cool, accept he would be fifteen minutes late and that she might not be there.
Yet when he walked through the door there she was, sitting at a two person table looking expectantly in the direction of the entrance as he arrived. She stood up and said, "at last", gave him a hug that surprised him, and a smile that bemused him. He wondered whether "at last" was a reference to his lateness or their prior failure to meet, and the accumulation of time that had passed since their first contact at the party. As he sat down he didn't know what to say and instead stared at her as she said a few things about his music after he handed over the CD. This was the first time that he had seen her close up and of course the first time he had seen her in daylight. He noticed a little mascara and a light lipstick but noticed more the smoothness of her skin, the tightness of her pores, the light that registered in her eyes, and the innocence of a face that looked like age had yet to attack it in any form at all. As he stared she seemed hardly to notice his visage, yet it would be unfair to say that she was seeking an audience. She appeared to be seeking a confidante as she talked in a low voice, leant towards him for emphasis, and told him why she had missed their previous encounter.
They stayed in the cafe till it closed at six, and she saved him the embarrassment of turning down the dinner invite he was about to offer by saying that she had to be home by six thirty: she had a video chat appointment. He wanted to ask with whom, but he realised that though she had talked about herself for much of the chat, this had rarely been prompted by his questions. She had told him what she wanted him to know, not what he had wished to glean. He didn't know for example whether she had a boyfriend, nor exactly when she would be coming back from Italy. She left him with a hug and a feeling of deflation, and he wandered round the city for a couple of hours as though they were properly emptied. These were hours where he was still with Sophia, only she had absented herself from him, and he was left turning over in his mind their meeting as a slow motion replay As he thought back to the afternoon he recalled two moments in particular, and also a remark he had made.
The remark he had made concerned walking: he loved to walk, he said; it gave him ideas. Or more especially allowed him to find music in the rhythm of his body. The first moment he recalled was a discussion about love; the second about work. She said that sometimes she wondered if women want to seduce men, why they so often do it in such a conventional way? They flutter their eyelashes, twirl their hair and play one or two minor mind games and that is it. Then they quickly look for commitment and before you know it they want to settle into a domestic arrangement that removes from them so much of their power. She should retain her seductive force even if she is married and with children, even if her husband sees her scraping off make-up or scraping the dishes. He asked her how a woman achieves this. She reckoned she could do so by making sure the initial moments are tantalising, by making sure that the man must feel very deeply her mysteriousness so that for years, through living together, through the birth of the children, through her ageing flesh and her menopausal moods, he still has in his mind that impression of mysteriousness that was generated at the very beginning. It was an odd statement to make he thought, and I nodded in turn: it sounded like some odd, primal post-feminism.
The second was about how important she thought work seemed to be to him. She suspected he was the type of man who was always looking to be amused. She was playing on the use of the word, noticing its roots in English and discussing its various meanings. She said she thought he was someone who wanted to be amused in the sense of the muse value a woman happened to have for him: someone who would inspire his music. She supposed he worked no harder than anyone else, but with many creative people they would often sublimate an aspect of leisure into the work, so that sex and desire wouldn't just be about release, but also about a desire that had little to do with the sexual. She suspected that over the years women had played a few games with him, perhaps wishing not to turn him into the man who would admire, for life, their mystery, but instead succeeded only in being a temporary muse for his amusement. She had emphasised the word as if to say she would not allow herself to be an amusement for him, and he laughed her remark off while aware that it seemed like there was a deliberate intent behind it. He asked her what work meant to her. She said what she enjoyed about studying language was that it gave her a feeling of the superficial and the profound at the same time. She would sometimes just listen and notice the structure of people's sentences; on other occasions she would hear people talk and turn their remarks into nonsense as she imagined the words being used in the original way. She noticed this especially with English.
I said to him that she seemed a very smart woman; someone who appeared to have the measure of more than her own appearance. He concurred, saying that he supposed in that conversation she was saying she was more complicated than he might wish, and that projecting onto her was his business. I asked him why he didn't retreat, and he said that there are drives within us far more forceful than common sense. Common sense, after all, is what we all have, but if this happened to be the only sense we practised, would music be made, would books be written, would art be painted, would people fall in love? It is not with common sense that life is meaningful. It is with common sense that life is practical. It is important that we are amused he added. But as he continued the story I noticed that bemusement seemed the more appropriate term, a word, I would later discover, that came from the same root.
Sophia went back to Italy for a couple of weeks and Paolo wondered whether she was mainly seeing family, hanging out with friends, or sleeping with a boyfriend. I suppose he allowed his imagination to run riot, a mind spilling out in all directions as he sought a hundred possibilities, none of them leaving him with a settled thought in his head. To contain them as best he could he would walk, covering parts of the city that he had never before encountered. He would go up and down the numerous closes and passageways in the old town, he walked out to Portobello, passing through playing fields and council estates. He walked along the promenade to Cramond, and returned through Pilton. He passed the prettiest of houses, the largest of mansions, and the most derelict of districts. What mattered wasn't what he saw, but how fast he could walk as he tried to keep pace with his thoughts.
During this period he contacted her by email twice but received no reply. Then, about three weeks after she left, he got an email saying that she was back in Edinburgh and thanking him for the links to some more of his music. They should meet up sometime she suggested. She didn't say when, she didn't give a possible date at a possible place; she didn't even say sometime soon. He replied the next day (a Wednesday) saying that he would be free over the weekend. He didn't get a reply, and off he went wandering around the city yet again, trying to compose songs in his head but usually failing even to compose his thoughts it would seem. On the Monday she replied, saying that she could be free in the mid-afternoon on Wednesday and suggested a cafe in Morningside, in the south west of the city, a couple of miles from his flat in Sciennes.
He waited an hour but she didn't appear. There was no message. The following day she replied saying there was a last minute problem and suggested Saturday afternoon, this time in Stockbridge in the north of the city. Again she didn't show up, but this time replied about ten minutes after he arrived explaining that a flat mate wasn't well and she thought she should look after her.
This continued for another few weeks, right up until the moment he found himself now sitting in front of me telling the story. She cancelled on another four occasions, and each time he would find himself sitting alone in a cafe in another part of the city. Once he went out to Portobello, on another occasion he went to Bruntsfield, another time down to Leith and on the fourth occasion back down to Stockbridge. She didn't appear at any of the venues, and each time would come up with a plausible excuse. Once she had period trouble, another day it was a reading review deadline, a third time it was a friend from Italy visiting a day earlier than she expected, the fourth that she hadn't finished proofreading an article for a friend. There was also another occasion, he said, the only time she suggested they meet at night - the evening I had invited him to the party. I thought about this for a second but kept the thought to myself, and instead asked him a question. I asked him what her excuse happened to be that time: she texted him while he was waiting for her in the pub saying that she forgot she had something else on. I then asked him why he didn't fail to turn up to any of the meetings himself or tell her he had been mucked around more than enough.
He thought about it for a minute. It was the thought of delay that one sees in people who are looking for reasons rather than providing excuses: excuses come much more quickly. He supposed it lay in her value as a muse: he had hoped to be amused by her, hoped to be diverted by her, but then he realised that instead, and perhaps much more usefully for the work, she was bemusing him. It was as though when she did meet up with him in the cafe it was to announce that she would be his muse but on her terms and not his. I was relieved to hear that he didn't seem too hurt by the situation, that he had managed to extract from it a positive spin that didn't merely leave his feelings in a whirl, and I thought this partly because of a piece of information that I decided to withhold from him. At the beginning of the conversation I wasn't sure if I was doing so deceitfully or tactfully, and sometimes it is hard to know the difference, and not always easy to discern one's own motives.
At the second party, the one in early September that Paolo failed to attend, Sophia had been there, and I could only now assume that the reason he hadn't come was that she had invited him to another destination, with no intention of turning up herself. Didn't she worry that he might have arrived later at the party and seen her in attendance, or didn't she care? I supposed she hadn't lied, telling him that she had another event on, but this was a party at the same flat where she had first met him. Why hadn't she said that she could meet him there? Perhaps because she was more interested in someone else at the party over Paolo; that she had arrived there with someone, looking like the item they turned out to be. That person happened to be Giannini, and I found myself wondering that night, unaware at the time that Paolo had been pursuing her during this period, if their affair had started after the evening of that first party. Reflecting back on the event after what Paolo had told me, I supposed that both Paolo and Giannini had pursued her without Paolo knowing anything about Giannini's interest. At the September party, Giannini didn't look happy: he appeared nervous, edgy and his glances around the room no longer possessed the air of the predatory looking for prey, but of the wary praying that his girlfriend wouldn't go off with another man. During the evening Sophia would disappear for a while and talk to various people leaving Giannini speaking to someone else. One of the people she talked to was me.
I told her that I remembered her from the last party, but that we hadn't had a chance to talk. She said she remembered me too, but neither of us offered it as a flirtatious gesture; more as a means to acknowledge that a conversation could start with a hint of the familiar. Within a couple of minutes we were talking about the purposes of a party. I said I didn't know whether I would go with an expectation consciously thought out, but I suppose it was to meet friends, say hi to acquaintances, drink, dance and meet some new people too. She said that she went to flirt or to engage, and found combining the two rarely worked. Giannini had told her I was a writer, someone who liked to tell stories about the subtlety of human behaviour. I said that she should thank him for the compliment; she added that she wasn't sure if it was praise that he offered, and said it in a way that suggested she was thinking what he might have meant by it. He was not a very nice person, she said - but she was probably less so, and they were thus better matched than many. I now assume that she would have known that I knew Paolo, and that she was presenting herself as an unpleasant person assuming that Paolo had talked to me about her, but at the time all I saw was a woman who didn't seem to like herself too much, in a moral way, and liked herself a great deal in others: she knew she was intelligent and very pretty. She more or less said as much, believing that two out of three qualities aren't too bad. Yet, she added, lacking much of a moral base she had to be careful. I asked what she meant and she said that she would never go out with someone like me. I said that was fine, but why did she believe this. Because I was nice she said, and that niceness would make her aware of herself in ways she would prefer to avoid. Giannini was not nice, and if she went out with what were usually bad boys she did so well aware she was a bad girl. I knew of course that Giannini had hurt several women over the last couple of years, and would speak dismissively of ones he would want to bed. Hadn't he referred even to Sophia's ankles as fat? The difference between her and Giannini she reckoned was that he hurt weak women; she would only damage strong men. She had to be very careful with sensitive ones.
She then told me a story from about four years earlier. She was at university in Trieste, and she met someone from the UK who was there studying Italian literature. His father was Irish and his mother's father had been Italian. He was in a POW camp at the end of the war, and came from Trieste. His father was from Dublin but was a Joycean scholar who had been to Trieste several times, researching Joyce's period in the city, and had taken his son with him. Brought up with Italian as a second language, he decided he would study in the town rather than in Britain. They met in a linguistics class, and would notice each other without speaking. After a couple of months he said he would like to see her for a coffee and she agreed. Over the next year she made his life difficult, she said. She would make arrangements and cancel; she would imagine in her mind all sorts of thing she would like to do with him, and then some impulse would lead her to cancel or simply fail to turn up. She would suggest meeting out of town near the Tergeste hostel, or at the Parco della Rimembranza, and would imagine how much fun they would have, and then fail to appear. Why? Perhaps she knew that she would cause pain and wished to avoid it. But surely refusing to meet him at all would have been the better option? Yet she did want to see him. But she knew she wouldn't have been healthy for him either. I asked how long she kept him in this tantalised state; she said around eight months. How often did she meet up with him during that time? Twice. But they must have seen each other at the university? Sometimes, and they would talk briefly, and make another arrangement. But after that he gave up trying, and when they passed each other he would say hello but never dawdle to chat. Then a year or so afterwards he saw her sitting reading in a cafe and asked if he could join her. She was surprised he wanted to speak to her at all and said she would be happy if he did. He explained to her that there is a saying in English that everybody has a book in them, and he supposed, like a muse as mid-wife, she had helped him give birth to it. It was painful gestation period no doubt, but a few weeks earlier he had finished a novel based on behaviour he found so odd that he couldn't stop thinking about her and it. If, as Henry James said, that a writer is one on whom nothing is lost, then perhaps this is really what Proust meant in allowing time to be regained. As she had wasted his time, he had then found it.
I asked if she read the book. She said she had; that it was structured around a series of encounters and places: all the cafes, parks and bars that she had failed to turn up in. It was a vivid account of his feelings, and also of Trieste. Knowing her hadn't probably improved his life, but it might have improved his writing. Perhaps it was the best she could ever hope for; to catalyse the creative, and have affairs with those who would be damaging the lives of others if she didn't go out with them. Within twenty-five minutes of conversation she had presented herself to me as the oddest of muses and the strangest of martyrs. No doubt she did so assuming that Paolo had told me of her unreliable behaviour. Yet there was also this need within her it seemed to confess, to admit sins that wouldn't be washed away by better behaviour, but instead by the creation of works that tried to understand someone who would explain herself but suggest that in no way could she change herself. The malleability would have to come in those who after encountering her would try to create in their own minds a self they couldn't possibly possess in life.
She then returned to Giannini, putting her arms around him and offered a melodramatic kiss. I watched a man whose time would no doubt be wasted, who might himself start wasting away in her company. He already looked like he had lost that cool detachment from only three months earlier. But he was at least no longer probably stealing other people's girlfriends and breaking faint hearts. He had met his match in Sophia: they were in that sense well-matched.
This was the information I withheld from Paolo that afternoon, and after we parted I went for a wander through the city wondering what my motives happened to be. I left the cafe at Tollcross, walked up through Bruntsfield and down to Fountainbridge. I walked back up along Gorgie to Haymarket, and along by Princes Street. I turned down Dundas Street and through Stockbridge. I went up Broughton Street and then by the Bridges. During this time I had Sophia in my thoughts just as on his walks around the city Paolo would have had Sophia in his. Yet I didn't feel she occupied the same place for me as she did for him. I imagined Paolo coursing through the city trying to find a rhythm to match the pulsations of his heart, while I was looking for the slower musing of a mind making a moral decision. I felt a little guilty that Paolo had spoken so openly about his experiences with Sophia in recent months, while I was keeping to myself the conversation I happened to have with her, and also keeping from him the knowledge that she had started seeing one of his acquaintances.
As I walked, I found myself thinking that I hadn't told him because I somehow wanted the story to be my own first: that I wanted time to think about the implications involved in hearing a tale that contains within it another the teller does not know but that the listener happens to, and the moral implications of such a position. I have commented on Paolo's music and his life: that rhythm was vital to it. I think in my own existence what matters is permutation: the subtle interlacing of lives and the ethics involved in such situations. I even feel an unusual complicity with Sophia at the moment - as though we are both keeping things from Paolo. Sophia kept herself from him; I am keeping information from him. She did not seem to want to damage a man whom she may well have liked, but couldn't trust herself not to hurt, and I suppose I didn't want to hurt him either. When I listen to his music I feel a warmth that makes me aware of the heart as feeling and rhythm, and yet when I read back my stories I sometimes find the opposite: a coldness and hesitancy that leaves the reader a little bewildered by their point and purpose. Yet perhaps if we need people like Paolo creating music that captures the pleasure of living, maybe we also need fiction that can ponder the unusual motives people possess, consciously or otherwise. My feeling is that Sophia didn't want to play games with Paolo. She was simply aware that to keep her distance while showing interest was the best that she could do. Perhaps, like the young man in Italy, she hoped Paolo would make some music out of a situation since he didn't quite know what to make of the situation itself. But maybe she has gone further still this time, as I find myself writing a story about her muse value after wandering around the city too, just as another man had wandered around Trieste, and others in the future will no doubt wander around other cities as well, musing over Sophia's absence. Perhaps if they come across this story they will find comfort in a tale about what I can only call the Cartographic muse.
© Tony McKibbin