Abstract Idealism

by Aman Desai

I
 

      Pumpkins, peaches, ripe plums draped under soft cotton fabrics. The early summer light comes in through the open door and stained glass windows. It is morning, but it is already heating up and a fly zips around, his infrequent buzzing accompanied by the steady hum of a rotating fan. You kneel, one eye half open, undeniably mesmerized by the curvy “fruits” on display by the buxom ladies of the front row. A single drop of sweat rolls slowly down from your forehead to your jawline.
      This is why you stopped. The fervor of your spiritual zeal, undoubtedly genuine, but still no match for lust, that deadly sin, pushing you to the brink of insanity each Sunday morning, when you would be unable to focus on anything, salivating and yet almost nauseous, digging your fingers into the wood of the pew as though you might be able to hold onto the church for dear life.
      No. Better to stop than to risk madness. Which is why, six years ago, you did, handing your robes, beads, other knick-knacks in to Father Bruno. His look, surprised yet willing to accept it, in turn caught you off guard; you turned red and you can still remember it vividly, even feel the heat in your ears. “But why?” he asks and you stare straight at him and tell him you like to fuck too much to be a priest. His eyes widen, and it seems as if he smiles a little, before composing himself, placing a hand on your shoulder, and leaving. The space where he stood just a moment ago now vacant, you realize you are looking at yourself, every detail clearly, in the mirror of the dressing room.

 

II

 

      When the summer began, Giuseppe came home from school for the last time, done with university. For the moment, there was nowhere new waiting to be the obvious carriage towards distant responsibility—thanks for your efforts and your money, but it’s time to make room, the school seemed to say. There wasn’t too much for him to do at home in Morlupo, though it was nice at first: drinking beers with his dad and uncle, yelling at soccer players on TV, mindlessly walking the dog around town, a cigarette dangling from his lips. But blame it on the Catholic guilt so enthusiastically instilled since primary school or maybe some human resistance to ennui: soon enough he felt lousy.
      He was bored and unsure of what to do. A degree in economics could be a ticket to a life of pleasant personal fortune if he took a job in Rome but Giuseppe was too stubborn and proud to ditch his resolute commitment to Karl Marx. He would be killing some vital part of himself if he cut all his ties to the student communist party, to the lectures in the dusty but well lit rooms of the university, to hours spent arguing dialectic in the dark outside L’Occhio, with glasses of beer playing nervously sweating bystanders. And so one day, the idea came to him.
      Sitting in the kitchen alone, carving slices off a big piece of Swiss cheese, nibbling, and staring into its holes, it occurred to him, as he followed the milky labyrinths towards their points of origin, that now was a time to try something ambitious and absurd. He could go for broke now, if no other time. He had nothing to lose and was full of energy. The elements were all present: he would forge an incredible bond out of his situation that could only succeed. With Marx on his mind, at home in Morlupo, a driving force was behind him, he imagined, winged horses ready to pull a chariot toward great and unknown heights. Giuseppe decided with great mental clarity at that moment: he would run for the office of mayor of Morlupo, on the communist ticket.
 
      Lying in bed in the middle of the night, his mother had woken up fromavo a strange dream and could not fall back asleep. A fleeting insomnia was something she had recently begun to experience for the first time in her life, and she attributed it to aging. She got up and poured herself a glass of water, looking out the window at the darkness, and at the few lights that were on in town and noticed the horizon, which was barely beginning to turn a murky color, yellows and browns faintly mingling, like a muddy watercolor painting. What had happened in the dream? She tried to remember but couldn’t recall. She watched as the first train leaving Morlupo for Rome departed from the small town towards the city, its presence signified by nothing more than the movement of a chain of tiny lights. In a different and distant past, it was here that many people from the city, victims of the plague, were taken, more or less to die. In fact, the name of town itself translated roughly to ‘dead wolf.’ In the evening, when the sun went down, the whole place became incredibly sleepy. His mother took a long drink of the cool liquid, the last of the glass, and set it down in the sink. Her fingerprints lingered on the surface.

      Giuseppe’s trip to city hall to register himself as a candidate was nothing short of a bizarre maze, a game at a festival—the rules only made sense in context—there was a clown in one room, a wizard in the next, the entertainers, or whatever they were, were all dressed in stiff, thick, cotton, not completely melting in sweat only because of the ridiculously cold temperatures provided by thorough air conditioning. After a hazy morning spent shivering, and convincing, confidently and persistently assuaging the concerns of one wary magician after the next, he walked out of the building with his mind blank, unsure of what he had just been doing there. He sat on the steps of the hall by a statue of Romulus and Remus and ate a sandwich. A gust of warm air and a momentary pause to reflect reminded him, and his energy came back.

      As he boarded the tram for home, a golden light fell through the plexiglass windows, basking a Lionel Messi sneaker advert in the hue of Roman pollutes. People were absorbed in private universes. A bald man with horn-rimmed glasses read the newspaper. A chubby nanny wiped her brow with a handkerchief while tending to a pair of blond toddlers in a stroller. Giuseppe, standing, particularly noticed a girl in front of him who kept falling asleep, often coming close to the shoulder of the stranger sitting next to her, and then shaking her head and struggling to try to keep her eyes open. She was pretty, in a black t-shirt, with long brown hair and a soft unibrow that was somehow very attractive. On her lap she had a book. He looked closer and saw that it was a collection of aphorisms from ancient Greek philosophers.
      As the tram navigated the town and people got off, Giuseppe got a chance to sit down next to her, and she promptly fell asleep on his shoulder, which he didn’t mind. He smiled at the other passengers who also clearly found it amusing or endearing, the girl so lost in exhaustion she was oblivious to her surroundings. An image of the scene, a still observed at a distance, a frozen arrangement of actors and props—what conclusions would the passive viewer draw?
      She woke up with a jolt near his stop and was startled. She asked him what time it was and he told her, and then she asked if she’d fallen asleep on him, and he laughed and said that she had but that he didn’t mind and she laughed too. They looked at each other, studying each other’s faces curiously and seriously. In her eyes there was an excitement that seemed to be permanent. She told him her name was Nicoletta and asked if he wanted to come over later, which he did. After she left, Giuseppe noticed that the other passengers were watching him but as he looked at them they turned away and smiled.

 
      Wearing socks, on her bed, they ate ice cream. When he told her about his political aspirations she laughed at first, but seeing him blush, she felt bad and told him lmpundoubtedly he would be a great mayor. She had taken a political philosophy class to satisfy a requirement for her degree and had half-heartedly learned a little bit about Marx. She didn’t really care one way or the other.
      She studied art and for the summer, worked at the regional museum, which had a small but notable collection of paintings and letters by an artist who had been born in Morlupo and then gone on to achieve fame after attending university in Bologna. Most of the time Nicolleta spent behind the desk, she read or worked on letters to friends, her tiny fingers moving quickly. She would sometimes get distracted easily, but with an innocence that was endearing. To Giuseppe, she seemed very relaxed, a quality he liked in contrast to his own restlessness. They put down their bowls and spoons and kissed– the kisses were cold and tasted like vanilla– and then they lay down and she rested her head on his chest and they were completely still.

 
      The next day, reading the paper, he saw an ad for a room for rent and called the number. Giuseppe had a bit of money saved up from working in the library at school and thought he would put some of it towards a campaign office, besides a space of his own. The voice that answered was oddly familiar and as they spoke, the man on the other end laughed with the fat laugh of a rich man, the kind that came from a full belly, garnished with an excess of spittle. When he went to see the room, he was surprised to see that the renter, a man named Paolo, was in fact thin, though with a sanguine complexion and an arresting intensity. He wore a flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the veins on his arm were pronounced. His wife was incredibly beautiful, and she had the same blood red color as him. They both lit up like traffic lights when Giuseppe told them about his campaign. In rapid succession, Paolo asked him many questions, alternating between amusement and admiration.
      Once he had finished asking a great number of questions and subsequent investigatory questions formulated from their answers, he told Giuseppe about his own earnest effort. He had become mesmerized by reading the Bible as a kid, gone to seminary school, and been a priest when he was younger, though he given it up. “Why?” Giuseppe wanted to know, and after his wife had left the room, Paolo leaned down, inches from the younger man’s face, and with ferocity and honesty and desperation, whispered that he loved sex too much, and then started laughing, with the same laugh that he had given through the phone, the fat man’s laugh that now made a very strange sort of sense attached to his body. It was contagious, and Giuseppe couldn’t help but start laughing himself, even though it wasn’t necessarily funny what Paolo had said, but sad maybe. Paolo’s son, a little boy in a polo shirt, was drawn into the kitchen by the sound of the laughter and sat on his father’s knee, staring at Giuseppe with silent wonder, as though he was an alien. They slowly came down from their fit of laughter, and Paolo smiled as he talked about his time as a priest but became serious when he told Giuseppe not to let himself be crushed by the worst, most banal, idiotic elements of life. He was genuinely kind, and offered well thought-out advice and light-heartedly jokes simultaneously. The two had made a connection, and both felt that they were experiencing the beginnings of a friendship. The room Paolo had to offer was fine, a little expensive for what it was, but something existed between them, and Giuseppe was happy to rent it.

 
      The incident took place like this: he had driven the family’s Opel to Paolo’s house to move a few things. He had a soft spot for the Opel, it being the car he had been driven around in as a kid, and he knew every part of it well. For the rest of the family, it was becoming a pain, with constant tune ups increasingly necessary, it was spending more and more time driving them between mechanics and parts dealers, its neediness not winning it any favor. Sometimes at dinner, drinking wine and eating meat, his parents would talk about buying a Honda or a Toyota, a dependable car from Japan. During these conversations, Giuseppe would let his mind wander, looking at his father or mother or the veal on his plate, or at the movements of the dog sleeping on the tile floor of the kitchen as he breathed in and out, but really looking at nothing, far away, thinking about Karl Marx, or his future, or anything, floating in a state of being in which he was made of two separate parts, his body and his mind briefly forgetting any relation they had.
      Paolo lived at the top of a steep hill, lined with old pine trees, each at least a hundred feet tall. Still a little energized from his encounter with Nicoletta the night oatbefore, Giuseppe drove the Opel to his house like a stock car racer, hitting pedals fast, shifting with sharp movements, and parked it in front of the garage. He hopped out and ran up to the door before realizing—shit!—he hadn’t put the car in the parking gear. He spun around in time to see it start to roll down the hill, wheels turning faster and faster, momentum building. He ran at the car and barely got next to it as it thumped over irregular cobblestones and continued rapidly downwards, getting the door open frantically and hanging on. He was trying to dive inside the car to stop it, but it was impossible, it had picked up too much speed. Unable to keep up with it, worried he was going to get killed, he let go of the door, fell back, and watched the car barrel down the length of the slope and crash, luckily, into a tree on the side of the road.
      The car had been totaled two blocks from the main piazza, and so its spectacle attracted a fair amount of attention. People on their way to lunch passed by the wreck and saw their would-be Communist mayor, pulling at his hair and anxiously negotiating with police and neighborhood residents. Some pointed and laughed because they recognized him as the one who had been enthusiastically putting up strange posters all over, posters with slogans and images that they didn’t understand. The nature of the small town was that word spread quickly. He couldn’t believe what an idiot he was sometimes.

 
      After sorting out a tow, getting the car back to his house and dealing with a barrage of angry and humiliating epithets from his father, Giuseppe walked to Paolo’s. Exhausted, he lay down on the futon in his room above the garage and called Nicoletta. The sun was going down and everything outside was purple when she arrived. He was cooking pasta with a little olive oil and garlic and listening to Gianna Nannini, which was, bizarrely, the only tape of Paolo’s he could find for the stereo. She came in wearing a cotton dress and kissed him slowly and generously. He was wearing shorts. She touched his head and said “you’re tired,” and he laughed because it was true and turned off the stove. They made love on the futon twice and then fell asleep in each other’s arms. When they woke up it was completely dark out. Giuseppe microwaved the pasta and they ate it lying in bed and watched Forest Gump on TV. Forest Gump had a big beard and was running all over the place when Giuseppe realized Nicoletta had fallen asleep. He turned the TV off and got back in bed, wrapping himself around her. She was warm and still other than her breathing. She seemed far away, maybe even on a different planet, in a different galaxy. She looked beautiful. He lay next to her under the thin blanket he had brought from his house, which used to be his when he was small, and had pictures of rabbits on it, and looked out the window. He could see some stars. He felt very peaceful then and closed his eyes and fell asleep quickly, like diving underwater.
      He dreamt that he was walking around Morlupo looking for the grandson of Antonio Gramsci, who was there for a reason that was never clear. In the dream he spent a lot of time quickly making his way up and down many streets, always with the sense that the grandson was rounding the next corner just ahead of him. The grandson was a ghost it seemed! Finally, he passed a bar and saw him sitting inside. Giuseppe became very excited and ordered a bottle of wine and started to talk to him, ask him questions and tell him about his campaign. But the grandson didn’t seem very interested and didn’t have much to say. He didn’t make eye contact very much and kept looking at the TV behind Giuseppe, which was showing a soccer game.

 
      In the morning, when he awoke, he immediately knew he had to do something to fix his unintended publicity mishap from the day before. He thought about it and concluded he would win back public support with a free lunch. What do people like more than a little something to eat? slugGive them some bread and they would forget everything, erase and rewrite his memory in their minds, this time as kind benefactor instead of idiot kid. At the Coop supermarket, sandwiches were 2 euro, and he bought dozens, set up a table in the plaza with a big sign that said Free Communist Luncheon and hawked his wares: “Yes, yes, come get them, sandwiches, free, free for everyone! Communism in Morlupo now! Yes, free sandwiches, how about something else new?” The event was a hit beyond his wildest hopes. People went crazy for the sandwiches. Batshit crazy like it was some sort of insane carnival: grown men in button-up shirts drooling, sweating at the armpits as they wolfed down whatever they could get their hands on, women laughing and embracing one another around his table, kids, pets, all in a state of joy. He didn’t want to ruin what had become such a disgustingly successful event by getting too political or even referencing what had happened with the Opel. Instead he basked in the energy of the people who had flocked to eat his sandwiches and played a true politician, echoing and amplifying the enthusiasm that he had seemingly manufactured out of bread, cheese and prosciutto. He shook hands and patted backs and people smiled at him and thanked him. When the sandwiches were gone and the crowd had dispersed, an incredible sense of optimism came over him.

 
      A week later, sitting on a bench in the piazza in his campaign suit, smoking, Giuseppe got the election results over the phone. The woman on the other end sounded confused, which was not surprising given what she had to tell him. One vote, no more.
      In other words, he had been the only one who voted for himself. Not his parents, not Paolo, not any of those wide-eyed sandwich-eaters who had given him toothy grins, bits of food hanging on their gums, just a few days earlier. When he got home, his father erupted into laughter at the news, clapping his hands as he made jokes before adopting a serious tone and telling Giuseppe, “Good, you’ve had your fun now. Get a real job and quit wasting your time in Morlupo.” When he confronted Paolo, the ex-priest was a bit embarrassed, and dealt a harsh blow by admitting much of his enthusiasm for Giuseppe’s campaign came from the fact that he liked him, and that he was the first rent-paying tenant he’d had in several years. Upon reflection though, he didn’t truly think him fit for the mayor’s office. Paolo looked at Giuseppe sadly and told him not to be discouraged but to learn from the situation, maybe to leave his small hometown and get out into the world, quoting a passage from the Gospel according to Mark.
      In Mark’s account, Jesus returned to his hometown after establishing a covenant with God and performing miracles in many other cities. He had cured people of their diseases and even revived a dead woman. Jesus had begun to cultivate an aura of wonder around him, and a crowd started following him wherever he went. But when he reached home with his new disciples, his old neighbors and friends and family couldn’t believe that he was a prophet. Jesus was amazed that the people who knew him best didn’t believe in him, and even worse, his miraculous powers wouldn’t work while he was with them. “So, maybe it’s like that,” Paolo offered. “You need to go far away to be successful.”
      Giuseppe, increasingly angry, and feeling now like a joke, feeling like he really was an idiot, cursed at Paolo and defended himself, calling the man a sell out and a bum. At least he’d had the wherewithal to see his lofty vision to its dismal conclusion. He packed his things up and walked them home, struggling to carry the unwieldy assortment of bedding, clothes and books, stopping many times to smoke a cigarette. The afternoon was warm, with a light breeze and the indifference of the flora and fauna, swaying to their own rhythm, ignorant of his predicament, only irritated him further. For no reason he threw the butts of his smokes at the ground rather than in the trash.

 
      This was the beginning of a difficult time for Giuseppe. The next week he found out Nicoletta was cheating on him with the attendant from the local gas station. He’d been tipped off by a friend and had his worst fears confirmed when he followed them to her house one day. He saw them go in, and hid, lying face down under a car, until he saw them come out again, and furious, charged the attendant before he was caught with a right hook to the jaw that laid him out completely. On his back on the pavement, he watched Nicoletta scold her new lover for hitting him so hard. She brought out a bag of ice from inside for him, placing it delicately on his swollen face and looking at him with care in her eyes but as though she didn’t know him or understand why he’d gotten himself hurt, like he was leafan injured kid in the street. He looked up at her in disbelief and pain and didn’t say anything.

 
      For the rest of the month, he didn’t do much but read novels in his room, drinking Pepsi from cold glass bottles, eating only when he had to. He lived like a foolish hermit.
      He kept his mind off her during the day but she would haunt him in dreams. She became a monster to him in sleep or as he lay awake in the dark, too hot under a thin sheet on a warm summer night. Sometimes he would picture the many times the attendant had filled his car up with gas, unscrewing the cap carefully, taking the gas nozzle and sticking it in the Opel before squeezing the handle and releasing a stream of fuel. But now he couldn’t help feel as though the attendant was penetrating Nicoletta, or that it was himself being fucked, in some greater sense, and this filled him with a deep sadness and he would laugh or else he would feel a swelling and work to fight back tears.

 

III

 

      The Morning: You are out walking. The heat is palpable, with the sun out in full force and small beads of sweat building and sitting patiently on your forehead. The air is muggy, and people are lazily beginning to do morning things, casually throwing open windows that look onto the streets, unfolding newspapers ceremoniously, and so on. Thousands of small metal coffee pots, resting atop flames all over town begin to whistle and thick orange-black coffee sputters into chamber after chamber, seeping its scent into walls, asbestos, cement, even. As you make your way past the train station, RAI blaring from a tabaccheria, some dark shape in your peripheral vision uncannily seizes you by the corner of the eye. This dark shape sinks a hook into you and slowly cranks its reel, pulling you towards it, and suddenly you feel as if you have no control, overcome, almost as if you are under the effect of some cruel psychotropic, the sun blaring, sounds echo, you are drawn to the spectacle in a blind fit of obedience until abruptly—smack– it spits you up into the foam of its wave and things come into focus again, everything is clear.
      You are still, you see him and realize. Giuseppe, at the other end of the platform, dressed in a sharp black suit, one you’ve never seen before, clean shaven but looking older than ever, takes a last drag of a cigarette and flicks it away. You start walking towards him, waving to get his attention, but you are lost among a million other black suits, and he is boarding the train for Rome and doesn’t see you. Frantic, you start running and make it to his car just as the doors close.
      Time moves so precisely then: all of a sudden he looks up, straight at you through the dirty window, smudged and carved, your eyes align, but either he doesn’t recognize you or doesn’t see you, and it’s eerie, like he is looking right through you. A microsecond passes, the train starts to move and he is gone before you can do a thing. The wind rushes through your hair as you stand at the platform watching the metal and glass picking up speed, kinetic energy in action. Soon the train is moving so fast that you can’t distinguish one part from another and before you know it, it’s you you are looking at, yourself, and your reflection in the glass is a bumpy static image, like pictures on spinning film and you have a sensation like one you’d had many years earlier, distinct, definitely, but similar enough to give you an odd and unsettling sense of something like nostalgia or deja-vu, you can’t tell what it is. You feel nauseous, as if you have just come, but are dizzy and nauseous from a release that has robbed your body of some of its life force. You kneel, holding your knees as you gasp for air. When the train is gone, everything is mostly quiet again and the track is empty. Birds and rats come to pick at the trash. Magazines sit on racks, pages still flapping slightly at the corners. As you walk out, a horde of newcomers enters.
 
 
Aman Desai has traveled the world, his pockets weighed down by rolled oats.