June 3rd, 2002

The Red Boat

The professor said he wanted a wood boat, that one over there, painted red inside. The man replied it was not for rent. Perhaps one of these rubber pontoon outboards would be better. Less likely to be damaged on underwater rocks. But the professor insisted. He'd be willing to pay extra. Or leave a large deposit. "Va bene," the man finally said.

The young girl sat forward; the professor was at the stern, hand on the rudder. They moved slowly out of Forio's harbor and headed south, toward Punta Imperatore.
"You will do well in graduate school," he said.
"I'm glad you think so," she replied, not turning around.
"And you will love Rome."
"I already do."

The sea was calm, and extraordinarily clear. Silver and red and yellow fish were bright in the water. Soon they came near a craggy rock, about a kilometer from the promontory.
"Did you know they call this Ulysses Rock?" the professor said.
"Yes, that's what's on the map they sell to the tourists. But over the centuries people have arbitrarily given it other names."
"So what would you call it, then?"
He thought for a moment. "Virginia's Shroud."
"You must have some obscure academic reason. Don't you?"
"Yes. As you should know, Virginia Woolf committed suicide by jumping into a river with rocks in the pockets of her dress."
"Black rocks?"
"Black dress."
The girl took a small camera from her straw bag, and aimed it at the jagged formation. "Something to remember you by," she said.

The professor shut off the engine. The boat gently rocked in silence.
"Virginia said of Joyce's Ulysses that it was underbred. The work of a self-taught working man. A queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples."
The girl turned. "Which makes you angry."
"Why do you think that?"
"Just a guess."
"There are always connections to be found, if you look carefully enough. For instance, when you took a picture of the rock a moment ago I thought again of Virginia. Did you know she was also a photographer?"
"No, I did not know that."
"She owned a vest pocket Kodak and used it frequently. Taking pictures ran in the family. As a matter of fact, Woolf's great aunt was the famous Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. Virginia's collection of photo albums contain unusual and sometimes bizarre visual sequences. Somebody said that they represent the novelist's obsessive identification with her fantasmatic mother. Now, isn't that an interesting word? Fantasmatic?"

The girl crossed her arms and looked out at the ill-defined azure horizon.
"Did you know that you talk too much?"