“If you had to choose, would it be love or passion?”, Yannos asks on our way back from the marina, his face scrunched up and pulled up to one side in a gesture of puzzled engagement but which he once explained to me was “just a tic”. He poses the question with no more sense of occasion than he did this morning when he asked which island on the horizon I wanted him to sail us to.
He means passion in the broader sense of the term, as forceful desire, as enthusiasm that quickens the spirit; it could be art or justice or sailing, but for him it is eros. It is women.
His question is just a gambit to steer the conversation to Antonia. He’s not expecting an answer, and I couldn’t give one even if he were. Though some live their lives knowing love without passion and others, fewer in number, passion without love, hardly any, save monks and libertines, do so by choice. Yannos and I can no sooner imagine what our lives would have been without either than picture ourselves deprived of hearing or sight. I tell him so.
I didn’t know him in his youth, when passion was his guide and mentor, when as an architecture student in Milan, he filled his schedule with classes in art history and critical theory simply because he knew most of the students would be women. Nor was I with him at the poker table when upon winning a bet with an opponent who had run out of cash was offered the choice of a pied-à-terre in town or a trip anywhere in the world. He chose the latter and went to Brazil in search of a woman he had fallen in love with on the island the previous summer. But his stories end with Antonia.
“One thing I can tell you, though, never get married. It was the greatest mistake of my life.”
Yannos gives lie to Rouchefoucauld’s maxim that “those who have experienced great passions remain, throughout their lives, both happy and unhappy they have been cured.” He finds nothing of value in his cure, which is one of continence, imposed at first by the sense of decency he carried into marriage and observed only intermittently, and then later by habit and advancing age. It was a cure he orchestrated himself by asking Antonia to marry him. It was the only way to keep her his, he thought. He didn’t know she would betray him, not by sharing her bed with another man, which he would have preferred, but by becoming predictable.
“Of course, you don’t mean that,” I say. He’s said this before, and each I’m shocked at his hubris and embarrassed for Antonia. She has been kind to me and has welcomed me into her home (for Yannos’ house on the island only becomes a home when she makes one of her rare visits).
“If you say so,” he says, no tic this time, and pulls off the road onto a siding. “Now let’s pick some figs.”
Bags in hand, we walk up a dirt path to a field that skirts the remains of an abandoned convent. Across the field is a grove of fig trees, the ground between overrun by thorny bramble now that the nuns are gone. I hear the cicadas chirping in the summer heat, the buzzing rattle of their insistent pleas rising and falling in waves of gathering intensity. It sounds like a portent, as if the field itself were warning us of a tragedy to come. I half expect to see the specters of nuns in powder-blue habits come to scold us for our cueillette sauvage or Priapus, that old Roman guardian of orchards.
We split up and I begin to gather what I can from the closest tree. Most of the figs are still green and hard, and the ripe ones too far up the trees. Clearly others have been here before. As I negotiate my way to the next tree, I scratch myself badly in the thicket, prompting a lattice of blood to bloom on my calves.
This tree is no richer in fruit than the first and I soon get bored picking figs. Yannos has already disappeared and I wander up the road to find him. I notice a row of pine trees on the crest of a nearby hill, the branches bent to one side, fixed by the north wind in a never-changing pose of supplication. I find a path and follow it up to discover a walled cemetery, guarded by tall cypresses on one side and the pine trees I had noticed below. At the edge of the bluff is a small chapel that overlooks the fig grove and terraced hillsides of wheat and olives that slide gently toward the sea. In this country, the gods and the dead always have the best views.
The cemetery is just a pocket of space, filled with a tightly packed jumble of tombstones. Only a few, the ones of marble usually, have an epitaph, as commonplace and indistinguishable as the bones that lay in the ground below. The other markers in local stone bear only the dates of birth and death and the names, of course, written in voids and rendered legible by the shadows. Among the markers is a single one of wood. The name of the deceased has been written in black paint so hastily that thick drip-spots droop from each letter, like graffiti sprayed in a rush, a shrieking glyph of revenge left by a wronged spouse or some long-suffering son. It is obscene in a way that pornography can never be. There is a reason why we speak no ill of the dead. It is not out of respect for the deceased, for as Freud pointed out, the dead don’t need our consideration. Rather, it is because doing so reminds us how much our own legacy will be at the mercy of those we leave behind, who tell our stories and tend our plot, or forget us and let our gravesite run to weeds. We speak no ill of the dead because doing so reminds us of our own impotence and mortality.
I find Yannos waiting for me at the car when I get back, his bag bulging with fat, purple fruit. He hands me a fig, which I eat to his dismay without peeling. I like the contrast between the astringent taut skin and the soft tendrils of sweet, mucilaginous flesh. No fruit speaks more of sex than the fig, nor of death either, for the fruit is a tomb as well, an inverted flower housing the assimilated remains of dead wasps.
He says, “It could have been different, you know. If a woman plays it right—or a man,” he remembers to add, “and doesn’t let you take anything for granted, the edge remains.”
“Selective reinforcement,” I say, and I think of Wacław. “But even that fails over time.”
He and I would see each other no more than once or twice a week. At times weeks could go by before one of us, usually me, called to arrange what we wound up calling a session. Each time felt like a reprieve.
If one cannot truly live one’s life as if each day were the last—for plants must be watered and teeth brushed—one can make love as if it were. Each time had to be as good as the time before or even better. Ordinary pleasure felt like failure, an adumbration of the approaching end. We explored pleasures we didn’t know we wanted, did things we never imagined ourselves doing, things we believed we had invented ourselves (though everything we had done for and with each other I would eventually see on film).
But though we pressed ourselves to continue surprising each other, we eventually retreated, our invention exhausted, to the territory we felt most at home in until, like land worked season after season with the same crop, even that familiar space turned barren.
The burden of great passion is the proof of ecstasy it affords. Even couples who have known no other lovers have their own hallmarks of reference. It is a touchstone by which what follows is seen if not assayed. Its memory may be dulled or explained away as a product of serendipity or youth, but we never quite forget that there are other and better ways to make love. Unless we fall in love again and not always then.
I think of Wacław less and less as I get older. I am sufficiently versed in statistics not to expect to experience such passion again. Our encounters were extraordinary; that they spanned a period of almost five years even more so. I am saddened by this loss—for every abandoned prospect is a kind of loss—but do not grieve for it. It is one of many I will need to accept and less tragic than others I will endure. It was never a birthright, anyway, always a gift.
Over my protests, Yannos shakes out a dozen or so figs into my bag, more than I can eat before they turn soft and rot.
“And what will you do with the rest?” I ask.
“Jam, I guess. Antonia likes it on her yogurt.”
Photo: “Study for The Beach“, 1962. Sailors and soldiers figure prominently in Tsarouchis’ work as emblems of male beauty but also at times as a symbolic representation of the god Eros.