It was July. San Marco was filled with tourists feeding seeds to pigeons. I drank a bellini at Cipriani. How ordinary the place looked, like the out of date Italian restaurants in Jersey suburbs. I bought a Carnival mask in a gift shop near the Rialto. It lay on a shelf amidst other brightly colored masks, but I was drawn to the crimson one with dangling red feathers and gold sequins. Another hand reached for it at the same moment as mine. That was Joyce. She was writing a story about the rising water levels, the crumbling palazzi, the perpetually sinking nature of Venice. We were polite (Where are you from? New York. Me too. Which part? Inwood. Me too. We could be neighbors. We are neighbors.) Joyce had compromised and bought a crimson mask with black feathers and sequins that glinted like ravens’ eyes. And so we became friends.
We had known each other for five years when I realized Joyce was a stranger. That was when, on a cold Sunday in March, as green shoots broke tentatively through winter ground, Joyce threw herself under the “C” train at West 96th St.
Long past midnight three days before she died, Joyce had called. She wrote at night and often called late, which was alright. My performances with the New York City Opera ran late, and I was often awake. But that night I was recovering.
After months of battling a raspy voice, I had gone to the doctor. He had stuck a tube into my mouth and looked down my throat. When he saw the growth, he’d said matter of factly, I’ve found the culprit. I swallowed my words, silently pictured sharp edges of cold steel knives.
The day of the biopsy I went to the clinic alone. I was too young to face death, and doubted anyone could understand. They stuck another tube all the way down my throat, clipped off the cancer, and that was that. I took a cab home, slept off the pain killers, and coughed up blood. I was still coughing it up when Joyce called.
I was lying on the sofa, allowing the unfairness to settle in: why me? I had smoked only briefly in my teens. There would be chemo. Hair loss. I would speak through a hole in my neck for months. Subway riders would turn around when I spoke, surprised at the garbled voice emerging through the stoma in my neck. Some would turn away in disgust. There would be no hiding the death in me.
Three days later, I whispered an apology into Joyce’s voicemail. It was too late.
Now, seven years after Joyce’s suicide, I am returning to Venice where our friendship began. I arrive during a February cold snap, two days before Carnival. I board a vaporetto and peer through scratched windows at the cinematic make believe of Venice.
At Sant’ Angelo a middle aged woman stands alone on the platform. The landlord apologizes for not meeting you, she says in heavily accented English, I will show you the apartment instead. I blindly follow her through the maze of medieval streets until we arrive at a narrow passage: 2725 calle Saoneri.
We step into shadows and darkness. Three flights above lies my temporary sublet. Exposed beams meet at a high point in the center of the living room, then slope downward on either side. I stoop to avoid hitting my head.
The woman hands me the keys and disappears wordlessly. I collapse onto a low futon, dozing until lavender twilight tiptoes uninvited into the apartment. Two pigeons are settling in for the night, cooing gently on the ledge outside my bedroom window. Shopkeepers bang metal covers shut and walk home to supper, their footsteps amplified by the cobble stones.
While I unpack, a woman’s unsteady alto hums, “Songs My Mother Taught Me.” I lay my crimson mask on the coffee table. The song’s words sigh from the apartment below, up through cracks in the floor:
In the days long vanished;
Seldom from her eyelids
Were the teardrops banished.
Now I teach my children,
Each melodious measure.
Oft the tears are flowing,
Oft they flow from my memory’s treasure.
I had once sung that old song for Joyce. She had replied, So sad, like the Russian countryside, then retreated into herself. She had been writing a story about Russia, had shut herself away for weeks, digesting that vast land, that complicated history. Her late night phone calls had become more frequent. Her voice had become softer, lilting downward into a gentle murmur where I lost it. I respectfully kept the conversation at surface level.
I have replayed these dialogues, wondering where the opportunity might have been to change the future. Years later, I learned that her grandmother had immigrated from Russia during the catastrophe of the Revolution. What could she have done? Could she have stayed? Could she have changed history? The family skeletons were too numerous to fit in the closet, so the entire house was razed.
The neighbor below is browning onions in olive oil. I should introduce myself, but the cooking has roused my appetite. I will do it later, after I have eaten, after I feel better.
I descend into the cold streets, still empty two days before Carnival. The wishful staff at a trattoria near the Rialto has set tables outside overlooking the Grand Canal. Gondolas bob gently with the cycles of the waves, their hulls shiny and black like the carapaces of beetles. Hearses for plague victims, I think, and move indoors, away from the chilly canal. The Venice of my youth had been warmer. That was when I had sung at La Fenice.
I choose a table near a window that looks onto misty shadows circling the street lamps. I like Venice best in the off season, Joyce had said, Byron and Dickens also loved it empty. Then her eyes lowered and she added, When it’s dead, it excites the imagination.
Back at 2725 calle Saoneri, I pause in front of the neighbor’s door on the second floor. It is outlined by light from within. Cigarette smoke lingers in the hallway. It is late. Wine and my meal have tired me. Tomorrow will be better for introductions, and I continue climbing the stairs.
But the next morning, in a rush to avoid the crowds, I hurry to The Accademia without stopping at the neighbor’s door. The museum is nearly empty. Space heaters putter in musty corners near Tintorettos and Titians. In a shadowy spot near the exit, a painting of the Archangel Rafaelle, angel of healing, unfolds majestic red and black wings. As I lean toward it, a sound like the whistle of wind through feathers arises behind me, as if the angel has appeared. I turn around frantically to find a group of school children flipping through notebooks. No one has noticed my panic, no one has noticed me.
Outside the museum, the Mediterranean sun crowns the palazzi with halos that glow against a cerulean sky. At the foot of a bridge an old woman begs for money. I place a crisp bill in her gnarled hand. The woman holds the currency up to the sun, then hands it back. Contrafazzione, she barks and waves me away. Shocked, I look at the counterfeit bill in my hand.
Whatever I do, it’s not good enough, Joyce had once said, I try to believe that people are good even though they do hurtful things. But sometimes my strength fails. We were having coffee in a noisy café. I was auditioning for the lead role in Tosca. My voice had already become raspy and I worried about it. I wanted Joyce’s support, but she withdrew. I was angry. Why didn’t she ask about my life? She continued her monologue, creating a gulf between us. After that, her late night calls became less frequent. This haunts me: if I had encouraged her confidence, could I have saved her?
I board a vaporetto headed toward La Fenice, where I disembark. Stagnant algae line the canal and awaken memories of performing here shortly before the fire of 1996. True to its namesake, the theater has risen like a phoenix from the ashes.
The day is late. The ticket seller frowns and commands me to hurry. The newly painted walls shine like fresh cream. Overhead, pastel angels frolic on the ceiling. Their chubby, rose-entwined bodies no longer betray the lost innocence of the original, soot darkened fresco. That painting had surveyed the house with wary eyes matured by age.
With my finger I trace the tough scar on my neck. It marks the former tracheostomy hole where the doctors had pulled out the tumor, that rotting piece of me. They had rejoiced, We can save your voice. Save my voice? They tore out my voice, and along with it my life. But I realized that my voice was not, in fact, my existence. It persisted, flaunting a tenacity that seemed worthless to me. Week after week marched by, the remission stretched into years, and somehow I remained.
After they reversed the tracheostomy, my voice remained husky. It suited my administrative position. Few knew that I had once sung opera, and I didn’t volunteer the information. Now back in La Fenice, I burst into a gravelly contralto Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore! Tosca’s aria, her tribute to art and love, the song I was preparing for audition when I was diagnosed.
Polite applause sounds near stage right. Brava, an usher admires. I explain breathlessly, I sang here many years ago. He asks, Do you still sing? For enjoyment, I reply. For your soul, he intuits and gently, almost apologetically, says the theater has closed.
I exit near the box office. Beside it hangs a sign that advertises in curling, old-fashioned letters, Tonight: La Traviata, sung at Teatro Malibran by St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Opera. Teatro Malibran lies at the end of a circuitous route through streets darkened with early evening shadows. I arrive as the lights dim, anxiously buy a ticket and find my seat.
As the curtain rises, the box door opens and a tall man claims the seat beside me. Sandalwood and tobacco fill the box. He runs his hands through wavy hair, graying at the temples. Breath mints half disguise the vinegar stench of ill health. I try to concentrate on the opera, but the man’s appearance annoys me. Single men his age, men with money and authority, are used to having their way.
At intermission, the man stretches his legs. I am Lucio, he says. Mi piace, I reply, taking his hand. Why are you alone, he asks. Why are you alone, I reply, stung by his insensitivity. To ask why a person is alone is like pouring acid on a seeping wound.
The man seems unfazed, pleased in fact, to have an audience. My friends don’t like opera, he divulges, But I like it, especially when sung by Russians. His openness seems encouraging, so I volunteer, I came to Venice on my own as a whim, I reply, I was here for just one night many years ago. Then my thoughts run away from me, A friend and I used to say we’d come for Carnival. And where is that friend, Lucio pries. Gone, my voice lapses into silence, unstitching the seams of the conversation.
After the curtain call, I try to say goodbye. He clasps my hand in both of his. He pleads, Have a drink with me. His eyes bore into me, then soften, widening at the inner edges and curling outward like Ottoman paisleys. We find a wine bar near the theater.
As a child I went to the opera often with my mother, Lucio says, She was from Russia. She had those ice blue eyes of the North. Those eyes can see into your soul. She came to Venice to get away—far away—from Russia’s cold familiarity. Now she is gone, but not buried in the Venice she loved. There is no longer room for the dead in Venice. She lies across the water, near a housing project in Mestre.
Lucio insists on walking me home. Carnival goers have trickled into the dank streets and fill the shadows with laughter. A woman in a black satin gown and a man in a harlequin mask drink beer together to keep warm. Their raucous laughter echoes in the streets. At calle Saoneri, Lucio gestures in the opposite direction, My place is down this street, he invites, An old palazzo. Come see it. I resist. It’s Carnival, he insists, Enjoy life.
What makes me give in? A sense of forgotten adventure fighting to be reclaimed? He leads me down a sliver of a passageway, then stops before a darkened doorway. This is my family home, he says with pride. We enter a rickety merchant’s house with weathered ceiling beams and warped floors. My throat tightens as I realize the trap. We need more wine, Lucio announces. He pulls two dusty glasses out of the kitchen cupboard and begins to wash them, his back turned to me. Instinctively, I bolt back through the heavy door into the passageway. I run wildly, feet skimming over cobblestones.
At 2725 calle Saoneri, I stumble up the stairs past the darkened doorway of the neighbor. Now is not the time to announce myself to the person within.
The next morning the shrieks of Carnival goers rise persistently from the streets. Awakening hastily, I bang my right temple on a ceiling beam. I sink onto the couch and cradle my head in my hands, disappointed in myself for inflicting this needless pain. I pick up
the Carnival mask. I try to wear it, but cannot. Holding it over my face, I cease to exist.
I descend the stairs, my head still throbbing, and forget to acknowledge the neighbor. An acrid smell of fried fish emerges from the apartment.
On calle Saoneri, a flood of humanity pushes me toward San Marco and into one of the capillaries emanating from the great square. Cigarette smoke stagnates in the narrow, covered passageway. Movement becomes impossible. I frantically push aside the wall of human flesh and flee.
My feet turn over and over, oblivious to their direction, until I am running past the train station and wandering the empty streets of Dorso Duro. Organ chords from a nearby church beckon me into its warmth. Beside the entrance a plaque reads “Church of the Archangel Raffaele.” Inside, a crown tops an altar transformed by candles into glittering gold, and I am brought to my knees. The candlelight and organ music coalesce into a woman’s face, a woman’s voice.
“It’s been so long,” calls the voice tinged with Joyce’s unmistakable gentleness.
“Is it you?” I reply, stunned.
“I am here,” Joyce calls, her voice more distinct, “I have always been here.” “Where’s here?” I ask.
“Nowhere. And everywhere.” Joyce explains.
“It was my fault,” I confess, “I failed you. I was so scared. For myself.”
“You didn’t fail me,” Joyce consoles, “I had made my decision before I called. I only wanted to say goodbye, to hear your voice one last time.”
“Why didn’t you call again?” I ask.
“You weren’t the only person I called that night,” Joyce replies, ignoring the question, “Some answered, most didn’t. It’s not your fault. I didn’t know how to talk about the pain.”
“You were selfish,” I accuse her, “You hurt your friends, your family, the train conductor, the passengers. And me. I’ve turned our conversations over and over in my head for years.”
“I only thought of ending the pain,” Joyce replies simply.
“I’ve missed you so much,” I whisper.
“I am here. I will always be here.”
“Where is here?”
“Here is everywhere, and nowhere. It is inside, where I have been all along,” Joyce explains gently. Then sternly, “Wear the mask. You will understand.”
The organ music stops. A priest places a soft hand on my shoulder and asks, Va bene? I don’t know, I reply with tears as Joyce’s face vanishes.
I exit the church in day’s lengthening light, and wander toward San Marco. Drunken Carnival goers parade across the piazza. Their wild laughter melds with echoes of Joyce’s voice and swirl inside my head. I am everywhere and nowhere. Wear the mask. Wear it everywhere. Wear it nowhere. I cover my ears, trying to block the sound. Wear. It. Here.
A toddler dressed in a white smock and feathered halo runs past and scatters pigeons. They surround me, their wings beating powerfully, sending me running once more.
At 2725 calle Saoneri, the strains of Va Tosca soar from the apartment on the second floor. I knock on its door. The neighbor approaches with shuffling steps. The door opens to reveal an old woman’s kindly face. Bon giorno, she says, her pale blue eyes sparkling mischievously, I was wondering when you would knock.
I kept forgetting, I apologize, I was always in a hurry. The old woman seems unfazed and says, I know, dear one, I know. My name is Luciana, come out of the cold, come warm yourself.
Carnival memorabilia fills the apartment: white plague masks with long pointy noses, expressionless masks with peacock feathers, bejeweled masks with puckered, full lips. On the couch sits a man in a crimson Carnival mask decorated with black feathers and sequins that glint like ravens’ eyes: Joyce’s compromise mask. Gray wavy hair escapes at the temples. Sit, he invites as he removes the mask. You thought you were rid of me, Lucio laughs and points toward the old woman, This is my mother, his laughter howling now, We are alive like you. He offers me a crimson mask decorated with red feathers and gold sequins, my crimson Carnival mask. His question is a command, Why don’t you wear this?