Mother and son visit the Amalfi Coast.
“It began with fear, fear and desire and a dire curiosity about what was to come,”-Thomas Mann, Death in Venice
They were leaving Florence tomorrow for the Amalfi Coast. And for their last night in town, they had decided to go and see Fellini’s La Dolce Vita
. They watched a buxom blonde put a cat on her head and voyage into the Trevi Fountain. “Gosh, she’s fantastic,” thought Alex. Beforehand they had tried to be bold and edgy by going to a restaurant that was not plastered with ratings from him or this or that. They ended up at a discotheque pizzeria hybrid near the Dome where one waiter was dressed as Sophia Loren and the lights were turned down so low you couldn’t even find the booths. Anne, Alex’s mother, flustered by the darkness and not having her glasses, decided to go back to old faithful: the British restaurant near the hotel. Shepherd’s pie again.
Earlier in the day at Brunelleschi’s Dome: skirting through passageways meant for one-way traffic, they felt with one misstep they would fall backwards into oblivion. Reaching the top, with sea legs, they sat on opposite sides of the dome, building fantasy fortresses. Anne wanted something to happen when they went to the coast. She wanted something to enliven her. Alex, her son, did too yet he could not quite figure out the form it would take, though he had a vague idea slowly morphing in his mind.
The suicidal curves of the road to Positano were like a rollercoaster laid flat. Alex took Dramamine, but the Looney Tunes
-like rapidity of the ride made the need to vomit inevitable.
Like everything in Positano, the hotel fit into its requisite nook. Anne rang the bell in the lobby. From a door behind the counter, a man emerged wearing a suit tailored so well it cut like a knife. His whole presence cut like a knife.
“May I help you?” the knife asked.
“Yes, hello, Anne….um…Hanson, checking in,”
“Ah, yes, here you are,” the knife said, smiling at both of them, allowing his grin to linger on Alex for a second or maybe an hour. Alex wasn’t sure and didn’t want it to end.
The Knife handed them a key with a vampy mermaid hanging from it.
“Welcome to La Sirena Anne and…sir, your name?”
“Alexander…Alex” Alex replied feverishly.
“Alex and Anne, welcome. I am Nerio. Let me know if you need anything, anything at all,”
The next morning, Alex and Anne came down for breakfast. They walked into the room and were promptly blinded by the positively acute sun accurately stabbing through the floor to ceiling windows. The only table left was in the zone where the sun mauled the worse, and they reluctantly sat down, secretly fearing sunburns. Nerio blossomed out of nowhere with coffee in hand.
“Good morning, Anne and Alex. Coffee this morning? Or is the sun enough to wake you?” He smiled again, the-chef’s-best-knife-used-for-special-occasions smile.
“I would love some coffee thank you…Nerio is it?”
“Yes, madam, that is it. For you, Mr. Alex?”
“Um, yes, coffee is wonderful in the morning,” Alex blubbered.
“Why yes it is. It certainly is.” Nerio responded and as he came around to fill Alex’s vacant mug, Alex felt him press against his chair and side with something that felt like intention. It all lasted a moment too long to be just coffee related. Nerio smiled and left them to be ingested by sunlight.
At five AM the next morning he took to the balcony. He felt he should do something unexpected to make the day real. The ocean seemed an appealing option. He changed into an awkward swimsuit that he had had for longer than he would care to tell and walked to the water. He dove in, feeling the water claim him. Raw, cold, and angular. Alex dunked a few times and as he came up the beach had a newcomer. Carrying a suit on a hanger, wearing one of those
European bathing suits, Nerio was approaching. Alex looked about searching for a loophole to escape, but all he could do was dunk down. And why? He would have to come back up eventually. He opened his eyes underwater and saw the impression of Nerio diving in. All of the sudden, Nerio looked over, and they made strange eye contact. He smiled and pointed upward. Alex drifted to the surface obligingly. Face to face, Alex wanted to dive back into the safety covers of the sea.
“Is your mother a good travelling companion?”
“Yeah, I guess. We don’t really do anything too adventurous. She likes calm,” Alex replied, surprised at his cognizance in the moment.
“Do you like calm?” Nerio asked, insinuating the world.
“Yeah, sure. But, I mean, I’m in Italy on vacation. You know?” Alex said, once again surprised he could form words in the knife’s presence.
“Well, to balance out this calm, why don’t you join me tonight? There is a gathering going on. It might perk you up,” Nerio trilled evocatively.
“Oh and try swimming like this,” Nerio dove down and remained there for a while. When he returned to the surface, he had his bathing suit in his hands. He stretched it above his head and turned around.
“Meet me in the alleyway behind the hotel at nine. See you tonight, Alexander” he called slinking out of the water, grabbing his tailored suit.
Alex remained in the water, unable to move for the next half hour. Anne stood on their balcony, looking on with confusion, curiosity, and a faint tinge of excitement for what it all implied.
After a day of scaling vertical streets and shopping with Anne in a little store near the tiptop of the town where she treated herself to clothes in a way she hadn’t in years, Alex could barely make it through dinner. Nothing about the upcoming evening called for the risotto in front of him that he usually loved. Anne noticed.
“So that concierge, Nerio, guy is kinda a card, huh?”
“What do you mean?” Alex asked, knowing completely what she meant.
“He is very smooth…it’s almost funny,”
“I guess he knows how to carry himself,”
“That’s always a good quality in a man,” Anne said laughing uncomfortably.
Alex half-smiled, “Yeah, sure.” There was a pause filled with uneaten risotto.
“Honey, there is a dance in the town square tonight. I think I’m going,” Anne said somewhat confidently.
“That would be good for you, Mom. You always liked dancing. You can wear one of your new shirts or something,”
“That’s what I was thinking. I’m quite excited for it,” she said confidingly.
“You should be. I think I’ll just stay in,” Alex said very off-handedly.
Alex helped his mother get ready, offering opinions on which purchase of the day she should wear. She looked beautiful and Alex told her so, sending her out the door with a long hug. When she was out the door, he had to stumble about, figuring out what in the hell he
could wear. Scouring about he found a pair of jeans and a light blue dress shirt. It wasn’t ideal.
Nerio was there in the alley, wearing a gray t-shirt and jeans with vicious boots.
“Here. We’ll take this car,” Nerio motioned to a fetus of a car. “You look nice tonight,” he continued.
“Thanks, uh, so do you,” Alex replied, completely serious.
They drove through the rail thin streets and out of Positano. Nerio started to speed up.
“So where are we going?” Alex asked after a few moments of silence.
“A party that a few of my friends have put together,”
“Ah, I see,”
They came to a clearing filled with other cars. Nerio got out and Alex followed.
“When we get in there, open your eyes,” Nerio said in an addictively ambiguous way.
He grabbed Alex by the hand and started running. And then, they were in a lemon grove, a never-ending grove filled with lights and club music. Everyone was a shadow. People were hidden behind trees doing who knows what.
“Come over here. You can have the best Limoncello in the country,” Nerio said. Walking through the Dionysian masses, of which Nerio seemed to know every person, they reached a fountain that had luscious lemon heaven floating down from it.
“Just stick your head under it and drink or drown if you like” Nerio said. And Alex did because he did not care. He did not want to care anymore. He let the Limoncello go in his mouth, on his face, in his hair, let it drip down his neck. Nerio did the same and pulled Alex to one of the euphoric clusters. The club music became tribal and tropical and everything dripped and oozed lemons. Alex thought his body was pressed up against Nerio’s for eternity. Alex was passed around or maybe others were passed around, but every face started to look like Nerio’s. And then it rained and rained and rained. Alex opened his eyes as wide as he ever had in his life. And everyone slipped and fell in the mud and poured the Limoncello over each other. Alex was by a tree, under the Christmas lights, and Nerio was there too, pressing all over and Alex pressed back. Everything felt too tight, too contained, and the knife was reaching for and pulling at the lemons!
The knife soared gleefully, cleanly through Alex’s body and he grabbed voraciously at the lemon tree, squeezing and mashing lemons and leaves to bits, letting the juice meet his eyes.
“…and goading one another on to dance and fling their limbs about they never let it fade,” (Thomas Mann, Death in Venice, pg. 127).
Interview with the author-New York Magazine
NYMag: Mr. Bruce, who were your influences for this odd little tale?
Mr. Bruce: Well, I wanted to tell an ominous sort of travel story à la Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers
. The Nerio character is supposed to function as the Robert character of the story. He is just this magnetic stranger. I wanted to make Nerio be very forward. If it were anybody else but him doing what he does, it would be awkward. Another influence was Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice
with the lemon grove rave scene in particular (pg. 126-129). I wanted to have it echo the dream Aschenbach has about the Dionysian ritual near the end of the novel. That type of hedonistic, primal, and guttural behavior is positively fascinating. That’s why I quote Mann at the beginning and the end. Alex desires more from the trip, from life and he gets it in the form of Nerio and Positano. Also the difference between the Apollonian and the Dionysian functions as homage to Mann because Alex is torn between the two in a way (calm and predictability of travelling with his mother and the thrill of what Nerio promises and insinuates). Also there is a reference to On the Road
in the lemon grove scene because it is supposed to be a moment of bliss. I tried to use the descriptive style of Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky
), Kerouac, and Mann too. The writing was also influenced by Nabokov’s Lolita
, which I was reading for another class. I just wanted the description to really pop. I also wanted to reference Fellini’s La Dolce Vita
in the beginning because that woman is so fancy free when she goes in the Trevi Fountain and puts the cat on her head. That is why Alex is intrigued by her. She’s a hint of the Dionysian.
NYMag: What is the back-story or context for Alex and Anne being in Italy?
Mr. Bruce: Well, it was supposed to be a family trip with Alex’s dad too that they had been planning it for months, but then the parents got divorced. So Alex and Anne decided to go on their own. They are very close.
NYMag: Are any parts of the story autobiographical?
Mr. Bruce: I did go to Positano with my mother on vacation when I was 11 after Christmas. And our room key was a bodacious mermaid. There is a hotel in Positano called Le Sirenuse, but we didn’t stay there. My mom did buy some new clothes at a little store in the town, and the roads were very curvy, but I didn’t throw up. Oh and a year and a half ago, I did go to the top of Brunelleschi’s Dome with my class. And my mom and I went to an English restaurant in Rome, not Florence.
NYMag: What does Nerio translate to in English?
Mr. Bruce: According to 20000-Names.com (thank you!) it has a Greek origin (Nereus) and that means, “wet one”. It’s supposed to be a blunt sexual reference, and it also fits in with the beach scene with the swimming and the mermaid theme. Nerio is clearly a very blunt character. But his actions wouldn’t be sexy or attractive (if the reader sees them as such), if he were anyone else. I guess I could have named him the Italian word for knife, but that seemed a little heavy-handed, a bit of overkill, you know?
NYMag: Why is Nerio called “the knife” anyway?
Mr. Bruce: It has to do with the feeling he produces in Alex. Seeing Nerio and engaging with him, sometimes feels like being stabbed with a knife. It’s a very clean stab though. It’s deliberate and precise. Nerio is supposed to be sharp, slick, angular, and completely fascinating.
NYMag: What happens to Alex?
Mr. Bruce: I’m not quite sure. I wanted it to be slightly Sputnik Sweetheart
-like in the sense that Alex gets lost in this odd lemon grove rave. I like to think it’s a moment of lucidity and self-discovery. Nerio isn’t trying to hurt him. He’s not like Robert in that regard. I like that image of Alex in the grove in ecstasy as a closing shot of sorts.