The professor’s mood seemed to mirror my own. Which in turn was reflected by the gray clouds that obscured the peak of Mt. Epomeo. Spring, despite the calendar, had not yet fully arrived on the island.
We stood on his balcony, and looked out at the gloomy, flat sea. Harold spoke in a quiet voice. “Once in New York a friend of mine and I came across a man sleeping over a grate, and I nodded toward the poor wretch and said, ‘That’s my dad.’ My friend laughed, as I expected he would.”
“What did you mean by it?” I asked.
“I meant cutting irony, of course. That’s how I deal with things I haven’t yet resolved. I’ve still got profound anger toward my father that I’m not quite ready to let go of.”
Harold’s willingness to share with me such intimate details of his life suddenly made me feel ashamed of my own reticence. He trusted me. Why shouldn’t I trust him as well? Or maybe I was finally ready to open up.
“Do you mind if I tell you what’s been troubling me the past weeks?”
“Of course not,” Harold said.
“All right. It’s been a long time since mom and dad’s accident, but I have a recurring nightmare with an overall green cast. As if everything is underwater. I wake up covered with sweat. On TV, when I catch a glimpse of a boat in a stormy sea, I quickly change the channel, but a cold nausea comes over me and persists, it just clouds my mood for the rest of the day.”
I paused. Harold said nothing but his silence was reassuring.
“I am embittered, angry,” I said. “I keep asking: What have I done to deserve this? Yes, I know it’s a rather childish way of feeling and behaving, but there it is. I can’t get past it.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” Harold said.
“And furthermore,” I continued, “I’m having a hell of a time being charitable to Vittoria and the way she is handling her own recent traumas. Why does she exclude me? She knows how much her extended silences annoy me. She claims that it’s nothing personal. And I guess it’s true. When she’s in trouble she shuts off everyone—including her family.”
“Yes, it’s an Italian thing.”
“Indeed it is. But it pisses me off.”
We went inside. Harold shut the glass doors.
“I think back a few years ago when everything was perfect,” I said, settling into the couch. “A growing reputation as a literary novelist. Steady, comfortable sales. A new book in the works. And those wonderful dinners with mom, dad, Jack. It just never occurred to me that everything would be turned upside down so quickly and so completely.”
“Fate, or the hand of God, eh?”
“Well, if God is behind it, then He is breathtakingly perverse. A diety who delights in his childrens’ suffering. He must love to see the look of numbed astonishment on our faces when our parents are taken from us before their time. I can’t imagine a loving deity doing such a thing. And I can’t lay it on a god because I don’t believe in gods.”
“There’s an intrinsic improbability in theology, the dogma of organized religion,” Harold said.
“That’s putting it too mildly,” I said. “For instance I just don’t get the Christ thing. It doesn’t make any sense to me, as it apparently has for millions of others over the past 2,000 years. What am I missing?”
Harold smiled. “You tell me.”
“Okay, God’s only begotten son dies on the cross for the sins we allegedly inherited from our ancestors. Three days later Christ awakens, and flies back home to dad. It’s like me saying, ‘OK Harold, I’ll save you by cutting off my little finger. Chop! There, you’re saved.’ And then I reattach my finger. It’s as good as new, as if it had never been removed. Now if that’s a sacrifice, it’s a brief and reversible one. Totally absurd.”
“You might look at it as merely a reiteration of the early belief that shedding the blood of animals and humans would appease angry gods,” Harold said.
“But I say again, it’s absurd.”
“Well, not any more so than most myths. You’re familiar with Queen Pasiphae bent over on her knees inside Daedalus’s hollow cow?”
I laughed. “Yes, a big white bull mounts the wooden cow. Pasiphae gets pregnant. Gives birth to the Minotaur.”
“Precisely. But that’s just a minor detail in a larger, more complex absurdity.”
“I was about to say.”
“But wait. If you’re a woman and fall madly in love with a bull, then disguising yourself as a cow isn’t illogical.”
“No, but I can hear the feminists howling.”
“Yes, especially since the queen enlisted Daedalus, a MAN, to make her disguise.”
Harold got up, went to the bookcase, scanned the spines.
“You have to remember,” he said, “that myths of absurdity are perfect because they put us into a world where logic and proof are comfortably absent. You don’t have to think. Just believe. Somewhat related to the Zen notion that the cause of all human suffering is desire. Desire nothing, think nothing, and you’ll never be disappointed. The closest we’ll ever come to true happiness.”
“Stop, Harold. Please. My head is aching.”
Harold turned, smiled.
“Very well. Is it time for a brandy?”