A long train ride from Napoli to Portofino. A couple kilometers from the station I found the meandering mountain trail that led to the village of Camogli. A few hours later, in late afternoon light, I sat at a restaurant’s table, sipped my aqua minerale and scribbled in my notebook. I wanted to capture as much as I could about my most recent encounter with Harold.
We were in his study. Rain rattled against the window, like tossed pebbles.
“When I was a young man I had a blue point Siamese named Don Quixote,” Harold said. “One day I found him out by the side of the road, dead, with his skull crushed. I put him in a box. My wife watched me dig a hole in the back yard. She had tears in her eyes as she told me she knew how much I loved that cat, and was sorry that it happened. She said she understood how bad I felt about it.
“But the strange thing is that my expressions of sadness over Quixote's death was bogus. I found myself merely acting and talking in a way that I knew she expected.”
“So you’re saying you didn’t really love him?”
“Actually I loved Don Quixote very much. But by that time I had become highly skilled at keeping strong feelings—especially painful feelings—at a great distance. I always protected myself by becoming fully absorbed in my studies. Losing myself in the tediousness of footnotes rendered precisely in accordance with the Chicago Manual of Style, for instance. Writing hundreds of file cards of notes from piles of obscure, inpenetratable books. Essays, critiques, reviews, endless exegeses.
“Addiction is the only word for it. I was like an alcoholic. I was consumed by my academic work, nothing else came before it. And this addiction kept me from experiencing pain directly. The psychologists say this sort of avoidance of the shocks of life keep you locked in place, unable to grow, to mature. Under that theory I may be in my early 60s, but I have the emotional makeup of a 30-year-old. Which might, by the way, account for why I feel so comfortable in our friendship!”
I laughed. “I’ve never thought of you as old.”
“Thank you. Actually in a way I envy you, James, because it’s clear to me that you aren’t fully insulating yourself from the shock of your losses, and even this current crisis with Vittoria. At least not to the extent I have for most of my life.”
I thought for a moment. “The unexpected death of my parents changed me,” I said. “And now the Vittoria thing is changing me further. But it feels like a diminishment, not a growth.”
“No, James, I think what’s going on here is that you’re more in touch with your mortality. Now you are seeing directly what we all have to face sooner or later. Before these traumas, you enjoyed the youthful luxury of thinking it all happens to someone else.”
“Maybe so,” I said. “But I used to think that disappointments and losses were anomalies, a departure from the norm. Now I’m thinking that the true anomaly is happiness.”
“Perhaps this feeling will pass,” Harold said quietly.
“Maybe it will.” I said. "If I'm lucky."