Drink, Grovel, Fuck: Northern Italy

Elsa and I sat at a cafe off of Piazza Maggiore and, as she divulged excruciating details about her historical research, I daydreamed that I was living in a spy novel. Elsa was my contact in Bologna, but I didn’t know why she’d arranged the meet, what her agenda was — we hadn’t worked together since we both entered the game as 22-year-olds.

She didn’t know I was under literary cover for “Drink, Grovel, Fuck” nor how toxic I had become.

Now she was ostensibly a PhD student abroad in Europe on a study year and I was ostensibly a single man traveling for leisure. The next week would be a tango of emotionally unbalanced tradecraft as we tried to extract what we wanted from each other and relearn the dance-steps of young adulthood.

The city of Bologna was the first target on Elsa’s dossier. She had arranged accommodations with her Italian “uncle,” Sandro, who provided an effective safe house in the suburbs away from prying eyes. He spoke no English and was morbidly obese, spending 90% of observed time in a reclinable massage chair, watching James Bond movie after James Bond movie on a 150” flat-screen. Elsa and I ventured into the city each day for clandestine meets with her operatives —

This isn’t working, the spy thing. I already used up my fictive juice last week with the gonzo alpine adventure. In this case turning the week with Elsa into an espionage satire would just hide more than it reveals and make me look less like of asshole than I deserve. And I’ve never read a spy novel, so it would only be that foul parody of satire: spoof.

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Elsa and I had sort of dated briefly five years previous (in secret — see the spy-stuff potential?) while living in Brooklyn and I hadn’t seen much of her since she matriculated at a PhD program in California. I had never spent more than 14 consecutive hours with her before Bologna. But the sudden decision to vacation together — despite the fact that she now had a committed boyfriend — seemed to lend some tacit charge to our arrangements. As part of a post-Paris effort to be a better person, however, I made a vow to not try anything with Elsa, not drag her down to my level. But you can see how I thought it might be a cool idea to set up a James Bond kind of thing, me as a moody 00, hiding his identity as a debauched lush, her as a an academic-type Bond girl with a history of promiscuity, a strange old Italian man (with a cat!) as the villain, a Venice set-piece, exciting objectives, cocktail drinking, sexual tension…

But it wasn’t really like that. Elsa talked constantly, mostly of nostalgic matters, playing the dreadful game of remember-when, which after several days turned into a high-pitched vibration that I tuned out. It didn’t help that I had little to say and was unwilling to discuss the actual shape of my trip through Europe and thus expose my contamination, especially if there was even a small chance that she would make a physical overture, exploiting a loophole in my hands-off vow. But that looked vanishingly unlikely, as she received constant texts, phone calls, and Skypes from her high-maintenance boyfriend. Plus we had separate rooms in the apartment. Also the building smelled aggressively of cat piss. And I wasn’t sure I even wanted to; we hadn’t been close emotionally for years and I was not encouraged by the ravages of time evident when she changed in front of me on the first day, an act I couldn’t decipher as a dare or a dismissal. I became gradually, rudely catatonic as the days went by.

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The allied operatives and enemy agents from my spy version of events in Bologna were actually Elsa’s family friends and chums from her undergraduate study-abroad days. She assured me ahead of time that most of them spoke English, although almost none actually did, leading to hours and hours of Elsa chatting away in Italian while I became increasingly restive. At one point I obnoxiously pretended to speak the language just to embarrass her. It became clear that reconnecting with me was not her primary mission objective; she wanted to catch up with these people and I happened to be another old acquaintance on a parallel glide.

But still, fantastical temptation:

Escaping from a Bolognese crime syndicate with our contact, Laura, who drives wildly through the Italian countryside, passing trucks on curves. Laughing as I cringe, she says in an unsuspected flash of English: “It will be better, you will be famous because you will die young.”

Elsa and I, drinking cup after cup of grappa from one of Sandro’s giant decanters, seeing who will get the drunkest and what that will allow us to do, what allegiances that will allow us to betray. Elsa pulls out the spigot and a jet of grappa sprays Sandro’s kitchen. She completely loses composure in a rare moment of panic, and I step in to plug the dyke with a finger, debonair, unflappable.

Venice, though, had real potential. Finally completely alone, rising tension, dramatic set-dressing. Checking into the hotel, seeing that there’s only one bed, sly smiles, we’ll have to make do. Elsa and I darting around the maze-corners of the city, nearly spilling into a canal after hitting an abrupt dead-end. Me leading us intentionally off-course for an hour to fulfill some internal counter-objective. Trying on carnival masks, obvious symbolism. Boat chase on the grand canal. Taking a romantic walk at night, finally revealing our true agendas, parting in anger, both back in the hotel room, argument resolved by the lights reflected in the water and simultaneous moments of aloneness.

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In actuality, Elsa had double beds put in. We took an interminable water taxi. Walked through the pigeon kingdom of Piazza San Marco. My internal counter-objective became to get drunk. I found a shop that sold 1.5-liter plastic bottles of wine pumped out of a cask. We drifted around for hours, which was fine; Venice is a wistful, soggy, crumbling old heap, and it suited my mood. The tourists were like the waves, persistently lapping the city into the sea. During a fancy dinner I stopped talking outside of monosyllabic grunts for no good reason, punishing Elsa for nothing she had done other than represent a lost shard of youth lost also to herself. Back at the hotel we continued drinking, half-heartedly, and watched TV on my laptop until the Internet token ran out. Elsa put on her static noise machine and we both took sleeping pills. This never happened to James Bond.

And yet, a final scene, after the evil plot is foiled, the blog revealed: Bond is allowed to kick back with Elsa, surrounded by half-packed luggage, both on the way somewhere else, finally relieved of subterranean expectations. They lay on a bed at the safe house, drinking grocery store gin and taking turns reading aloud random chunks of Finnegan’s Wake. Elsa offhandedly invites Bond to share her bed on that last night in order to take advantage of the sleep noise machine. Bond agrees and goes back to reading aloud. Every time they hand off the book their bodies get closer together until they are effectively spooning. Finnegan’s Wake is hysterically funny to read out loud and speaking precise nonsense to each other acts as a sort of catharsis.

In the end, though, we were both just drunk and touchy, and had to get up early the next day to travel. The offer was tacitly retracted. Neither of us as young or adventurous as we used to be.

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