Read The Conversion Online

Authors: Joseph Olshan

The Conversion (5 page)

“I didn’t think he would,” the man said and went on to explain that several weeks after James mysteriously severed their relationship, he, the ex-lover, came down with a terrible flulike illness: high fever, rapid weight loss, and an outbreak of herpes. He was bedridden for two weeks and finally dragged himself to see a doctor who diagnosed an HIV infection. James had been the only person he’d slept with for six months.

“Didn’t you take the proper precautions?” I asked him, knowing that I hadn’t myself.

He claimed to have been fastidiously careful.

“Then how could it have happened?” I pressed him.

The young man’s doctor surmised that there could have only been one way. One morning before leaving to serve Mass, James came into the bedroom and told his lover that his closely cropped beard was irritating to his face and ordered him to shave. James had obviously just finished using the razor himself. His lover was nervous and cut himself while shaving; the doctor suggested that there could have been fresh traces of James’s blood on the blade, allowing the virus to be passed.

Shortly after the breakup, when the younger man called to announce that he had sero-converted, James thanked him for sharing the news and got off the phone quickly.

Marina is understandably sobered by my story. “This is very sad,” she says. “I didn’t know the disease could be passed this way.”

“Neither did I.”

“Poor young man. But with these drugs available he can still live a long time. Not true?”

I sigh and say that one can only hope.

“But now, when he found you at this gym, he was feeling okay, he was doing better, wasn’t he?”

“He looked remarkable. Like a god. You’d never know.”

I try to explain to Marina the paradox of sero-conversion. That often in the early months, in the early years of infection, the men who carry the virus bloom with robust health. I suppose you could call this a kind of feverish beauty, the final attainment of physical perfection before the gradual decline.

She is visibly stirred by what I’ve just told her. Her pale eyes give the impression that she is deep in thought. At last she says, “Like one of my roses so perfect and seemingly so alive right before the petals begin to droop and drop. You do make it sound mysterious, Russell.”

“I guess it is kind of mysterious.”

“You might consider writing about it someday.”

It’s been so long since I’ve done any writing, and although I’ve not mentioned it, Marina seems to be aware. In the throes of Michel I
eventually
stopped trying to set things down on paper. Then, living with Ed, it was easier to focus on his work instead. Writing about the priest, how would I even approach it? I wonder aloud.

Marina raises her right hand, as though to swear by her words. “If you’d only begin, it would become an act of discovery.”

Her attention is suddenly distracted by something she sees at the villa. “Ah,” she says. “There’s Stefano. We’re getting a rare view of him.” I can just barely make out a man dressed in a bathrobe with long, straggly gray hair standing at a downstairs window at the far right corner of the
building
. “He is taking a break.” Gazing toward her husband, Marina breaks into a fond, beatific smile.

Stefano is staring back at us inquisitively but makes no gesture of salutation. A moment later he has vanished.

Marina suddenly seems to grow agitated. I can see her inadvertently chewing the inside of her cheek. I wait to see how this change of mood will manifest itself. Taking a deep breath, she continues, “Stefano writes many things that are unpopular. He has a remarkable intelligence that can take a premise and argue all its different angles with marvelous conviction. Even though he has written novels as I have, this sort of persuasive facility may actually be his strongest suit. He would never admit to this, by the way,” she informs me with a pinched smile. She suddenly appears
uncertain
, and now I’m sure something is bothering her. “He has, for example, written about the problems of Muslims who are living in Italy. And because of his articles he has made many enemies.”

I’m remembering the roadblock near Ventimiglia, which, according to Marina, was established to help screen for foreign terrorists who might be entering Italy. At the time Marina had mentioned that, unfortunately, people of darker complexions tended to be stopped more often; in fact, many became detainees because it was discovered that they were entering without visas. “Does Stefano think they should not be allowed to wear religious garb in schools?”

“Good God, no. He has written more about how we can protect ourselves from … shall we call them ‘home-grown terrorists.’”

“This is what you wanted to talk to me about,” I fill in.

She nods. “Precisely.” A cacophony of church bells in the nearby city intercedes for a few moments. Finally, Marina says, “About the men who broke into your hotel room.”

“What about them?” I say, feeling a sudden chill. When I inwardly replay the strange nocturnal episode, the invasion takes on the quality of heat waves visibly waffling into the air above a blistering roadway, the surrealist memory of men leaping through the French doors, of waking to their acrid smell and their jerky fumblings and their gruff orders, to the outrageous semiautomatic gun and the gutting knife. To Ed’s reckless outrage and then the intruders’ sudden inexplicable disappearance.

“I know this might sound very strange to you, maybe even James Bondian,”Marina continues. “However, my friend who works in the Italian intelligence office believes they might have been looking for
my
room.”


Your
room?”

She shrugs. “That is correct.”

“To attack
you?

“Not me.
Stefano
.”

Stefano was to have accompanied her to Paris, to see a certain exhibition of medieval manuscripts at the Museum of the City of Paris. He hadn’t left the villa in ten years and made the mistake of writing about breaking his self-imposed incarceration in one of his newspaper essays, divulging his traveling plans. Shortly before they were to leave, Marina received a call from this friend in Intelligence who warned that information had been received about a possible assassination attempt against Stefano.

“I first thought it was ridiculous. Why would they bother to assassinate an ailing older man who writes a newspaper column?”

“Because lots of people read it and might be influenced,” I say.

“I will tell you there are far more important and powerful people to hit than my Stefano.”

Of course Marina would want to assume this.

“The problem is that my friend in Intelligence admits that his own sources aren’t as reliable as he’d like them to be. But he still said we shouldn’t take chances. So that is why Stefano stayed home while I went to Paris by myself.

“Anyway, I changed my reservation at the very last moment from a double to a single room. And then I learned what happened in
your
room. So … here we have Ed and Stefano, two well-known writers who easily might have been confused with each other, possibly by whoever informed the men which room it was. So if they were actually looking for Stefano, once they realized they were in the wrong room, they probably just fled.”

“I think they
fled
because Ed went crazy on them,” I say in English. “Totally bananas. It threw them, I think.”

“So you’re suggesting his foolish behavior was what saved your lives?”

I explain how it’s been proven that being daring and aggressive during an attack can put the aggressor off guard.

Marina dismisses this with, “Just as likely they could’ve been provoked to kill both of you.”

“Possible,” I agree. “Thank God they didn’t. I just assumed they were only after money and passports.”

“Money and passports are valuable to people who want to commit terrorist acts.”

“Yes, but commit terrorist acts to obtain them?” I ask her.

“Why not? Of course you’d rather believe that a gun pointed at your head was being used to commit a robbery rather than to kill you,” Marina tells me. “And who wouldn’t?”

“Did I tell you that while it was happening, they momentarily switched from French to another language—Ed claimed it was Albanian. I reported this to the police, but frankly I never understood how he was able to recognize that language.”

Marina explains that Albanian has been influenced by Latin words and that the Arbëreshë dialect is spoken widely in Italy.

“But I know more Latin-based languages than Ed did, and I didn’t recognize any words.” I go on to say that the switch in language involved approximately four short sentences that were quick and garbled.

“I see,” Marina murmurs. “And what about the comment you said they made … something about ‘two men.’”

Homosexuality is a shock to many people, I remind her. And it’s
anathema
to many religions, certainly to Islam. That still doesn’t tell us very much.

I go on to point out what was to me the most significant development surrounding the incident. One of the policemen who’d questioned me mentioned that the hotel had had some trouble with robberies in the past; in fact, our room lent easy access from several adjacent buildings and had been broken into repeatedly. (Of course, the management had avoided mentioning this.) Standing at the large balcony windows, the point of entry, the policeman indicated two roofs of neighboring buildings. So, as much as one could wonder if the intruders were Italian Albanians looking for Stefano, one could also theorize that we were chosen merely because our balcony was vulnerable. “Ed was the only one of us who felt they might have been looking for somebody else. But you also have to know that Ed was one big drama queen.”

Marina now laughs and slaps her thighs. “I think you’d make a good detective, actually.”

I remind her that in my thorough questioning by the Parisian
authorities
, I’d been forced to examine and re-examine what happened in great detail.

“Of course you did.”

I am just now realizing that Marina’s invitation for me to stay at the villa, all her zealous efforts to troubleshoot my obligations to the French courts, make a bit more sense. If she hadn’t wondered whether the
intruders
might have been looking for her room, would her generosity have been less forthcoming? In one way, I am relieved; now her gestures don’t seem so lofty and altruistic. Surely, her belief that the men were out to assassinate her husband instead of Ed is what she wanted to discuss.

“So you really think Stefano is in danger?” I ask.

“I’m actually waiting for news from my friend, more conclusive news. I could tell you that for the last twenty years, many such threats have been thrown around by one disgruntled group of people or another and have come to nothing. But, as you well know, the terrorists of today are adamant and organized. They have certainly killed many people who have gone in opposition to them.”

I take all this in for a moment, and then tell Marina another idea that has been revolving around my brain: that now, after all has been said and done, Ed probably would have approved of his own death. It was a better way to go than suffering some long, withering illness.

“Who’s to say that would have happened?” Marina asks.

And I now explain that Ed had also been infected with HIV and had lived with the virus for years.

Marina nods and says, “Oh, I see. Poor man,” she mutters.

We arrive at a series of five front steps that ascend to delicate French doors with mullioned glass panes, doors leading directly into the downstairs
salone
. The villa doesn’t have a formal entrance per se but rather a ponderous, beautifully carved wooden door at the side that is controlled by an electric lock. This small entrance in the front is hardly grand. Marina sits down on the worn stone steps and tilts her face to the sun. I am looking across the valley halfway up a mountain where, surrounded by towering, mature cypresses, sits another residence of substantial
proportions
. Pointing to it, Marina says, “That, by the way, is the convent where Puccini’s sister lived. The one on which he based
Suor Angelica
. You could take a hike there.” I tell her that I might just do that.

Several moments pass and, somewhere in the distance, the dogs begin to bay in earnest. Marina finally gets up and walks toward the French doors. Then something stops her and she turns around. “And you?” she says. “Do
you
have that virus, too?” Blunt as usual.

Another nightmare. I’m on the balcony at the Parisian hotel, or maybe it’s on scaffolding looking in on the crime scene, before losing balance and free-falling. The final impact of the pavement is a rude shock, and my breathing is blocked by blood gurgling up into my throat. I awaken once again with my head at the foot of the bed, my face in the pair of socks that I left there, smelling the sweat of my own feet.

It’s three o’clock in the morning, and lying here I remember having similar nightmares when, at the age of fourteen, I read for the first time Giorgio Bassani’s bildungsroman,
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
. It’s one thing to read a novel about a wealthy Jewish family who are deported to the concentration camps during World War II; it’s another thing entirely to read about a family that is actually your own. The author’s first cousin, my mother, was born into much more modest circumstances, and yet her father, my grandfather, was prescient enough to get his branch of the family out of Ferrara before the Nazis invaded. My mother came to America at the age of five and remembers little of her early life in that wealthy Italian city with high walls. She completely abandoned her native language while growing up and, when I was a child, rarely made reference to how our Italian relatives were herded into trains and transported to the death camps of Poland and Germany. The only thing she’d ever discussed in any great detail was the guilt of my grandfather, who managed to survive the Holocaust while losing most of his family. My grandfather died of a heart attack shortly after I was born.

My mother once told me that my grandfather had an explosive temper and went into unbridled rages—I suppose much in the way Ed did—often over smaller, insignificant events or circumstances. I used to warn Ed that one of these fits might trigger a heart attack, but he never listened to me. I’ll admit there is part of me that worries that I stayed with him for the wrong reasons—not because I was in love with him (as it perhaps should have been), but rather because I so profoundly admired his mind and his writing. In light of this, I easily could have become his good friend instead of his live-in companion. But knowing I was short on money and badly wounded over Michel, he encouraged me to come and stay at the
rue Birague, perhaps hoping that from the height of my esteem for him I’d fall in love. I believe he hoped for this against the odds that I probably would be unavailable to anyone for a long time. And so, I ended up causing great pain to a vain man who’d been used to charming and
sleeping
with lots of attractive people. Ironically, the poet who could write beautifully about desire and the nuances of love just couldn’t accept the fact that I continued to be obsessed with somebody else.

Again and again, I find myself involuntarily reliving that last night in Paris, the menacing men cloaking their identity in paramilitary garb, men who, when they entered the room, shifted my life into a strange gear, a third world nightmare of arms and hijackings and blithe murder without any sort of conscience. But then I remind myself that these intrusions underwritten by violence occur in America all the time, often without reason or for some spurious psychological motive.

And then of course, his heart attack. If only I could’ve known the attack was happening to him when it did, been awake when it struck. For then at least I could’ve knelt down, reassuring him that everything would be fine, all the silly platitudes that you murmur to people who are dying. Yeah, I know they call death during sleep a blessing, but I also hate the idea of going out without even realizing it: going to sleep intending to wake up fully restored and never waking up again. It just reinforces the idea of the finality of death. As scary as it might seem, I think I’d want to know it if I was going to die.

I may be dreaming again, but now there seems to be some kind of distant commotion going on, doors slamming and a woman shrieking. I sit up in bed and try to listen for further reports. I hear nothing and yet I get the distinct feeling that something outside my own head is actually wrong. And then I start worrying and switch on the night-table lamp. Exactly what I feared: I don’t see my old computer bag with Ed’s manuscript hanging where I’d left it in an open closet. Then I remember with a groan that yesterday Carla had kicked me out of the room in order to clean the bathroom and change the sheets. Did she move it? And if she did, where did she put it?

I jump out of bed. I never want to find anything in my life as much as I want to find “Russell’s computer,” as Ed called his book. I begin
scouring
the room. Five fanatical minutes elapse before I finally locate it hanging from the inner knob of the bathroom door—a very odd place to
have left it. In fact, I don’t remember having done so. My heart
hammering
in my chest, I grab the shoulder strap and transport the bag to my bedside. The zipper is partially open and I see, peeking out of the side, the hybrid of manuscript pages: sheets of bond typed manually and
yellow-lined
paper filled with his tiny, hardly legible handwriting. Ironically, Ed’s actual handwriting bears more resemblance to the electronic diagram of a heartbeat than to something orthographic.

Since Ed’s death, the only thing I’ve done with his manuscript is
organize
it between typewritten and handwritten pages, shuffling to make them into a neat stack and reading the odd paragraph here and there. When Ed died he was considering some revisions I’d suggested. I begin flipping through the manuscript until I locate my favorite ninety-page section that is earmarked with a metal clamp. In this part Ed discusses a three-year teaching stint at Dartmouth College, as well as an affair he’d had with one of his most promising students, a fair-haired lad who came from a Boston Brahmin family and who was terribly torn up over his love for his renowned professor. The relationship ended abruptly when the student fell off a five-story building and smashed his skull on a driveway. At the autopsy, the young man’s blood alcohol level indicated that he was drunk when he fell.

The death was devastating to Ed (then in his late thirties), who descended into a two-year-long depression in which he wrote absolutely nothing. This phase was followed by a steady period of manic production when he managed to compose his most famous poem, entitled “The Deer,” which was published in
The New Yorker
and which, at one hundred and fifty stanzas, became the longest poem the magazine had ever printed. Many critics compared the poem to “In Memoriam,” Tennyson’s paean to Arthur Hallam, with whom the poet was secretly in love and who died tragically of fever in Vienna. “The Deer” became the title poem in a collection that went on to win the National Book Award.

I skip to the last seventy pages, material I’ve never seen; until now I’ve never had the entire manuscript in my possession. The first thing out of character that I notice is how the paragraphs keep getting shorter and shorter, until sometimes they are no more than one sentence in length. The writing itself seems more rough-hewn than earlier sections and clearly has not been so meticulously groomed. Curious, I read a few sentences and then stop abruptly. I’ve stumbled upon a rant: Ed ranting about me.

He complains of all the obvious things: that I am not as emotionally involved with him as he’d like me to be; that I am not physically attracted to him; and that I’m still obsessed with Michel Soyer. This so-called lingering obsession, he goes on to say, was easier for him to accept early on but became more and more difficult as the months elapsed, for clearly I have continued to be preoccupied by what happened between me and the Frenchman. Of course it would. But then his complaints get stronger. He comes out and calls me elusive, he calls me remote. He even complains how unfair it is that I have sexual self-confidence as well as “some”
literary
ability (that is how he phrases it). Any intellectual worth his salt, he says, should be plagued with self-doubt about his power to attract others. Russell should be insecure about his body, his sheer physicality. It’s the yin and yang of high-mindedness, he writes. But I certainly never got a sense that Ed was insecure about his sexual power or his ability to attract. By his own admission, plenty of people, both men and women, had fallen in love with him during his lifetime.

Even more worrisome is his concern that I was with him because I wanted to draft off his success as a famous writer, that I probably wouldn’t be around if I didn’t think he could help my career. He claims that I treat him generally well but believes that basically I am indifferent to him. This is so untrue and so unkind. I adored Ed as one adores a close friend; I was anything but indifferent to him. However, I know that believing the worst as he did must have been terribly painful for him. It’s certainly
excruciating
for me to read.

Ed concludes his assessment of me by saying that although I have some talent, I probably will never get very far in my writing career. “He’s so possessed by his passion for his Frenchman, he’d do anything. He’d give his life over to love. That’s why he’ll never write anything good.”

The most recently written words of a dead man, even though I know they were written in jealous anger, truly sting. I gather together the loose leaves of the manuscript and stow them once again in my old computer bag. It is one thing to sense that you’ve made somebody miserable; it’s another thing entirely to read about it conclusively from their point of view and to know that they never really believed in you.

We’d certainly had discussions, Ed and I, about what I planned to do with my writing career, what I was conjuring up. He seemed surprised that I didn’t have a long list of subjects that I wanted to tackle. And yet I
always felt that he was curious, not so much because he thought I
should
be working on something, anything, but rather because he wanted his companion, whomever he might be, to be engaged in something that could be discussed in mixed company, in short how his light might be refracted in the person closest to him. But then, too, he had to be the star, so my lack of conviction, my uncertainty about what came next, might have suited him on some level as well.

I felt stymied; my novella was basically a fictional autobiography of a drowning I witnessed at the age of six. The experience itself had been so traumatic, all the details of the terrible time were easily available to me. I wrote the first draft in a great heat, and what I put down didn’t really need much modification before I arrived at the final version. But I suspected this was a fluke; indeed, it was the only thing I’d ever written that I hadn’t obsessively rewritten. Moreover, while I was putting the final touches on the manuscript I fell in love with somebody and grew so distracted that it took me several months to finally finish my work. When I explained all of this to Ed, he ran with it, claiming he’d never let anyone stand in the way of his writing. He boasted that he’d worked every single day of his adult life, except for the two years when he was, by his own admission, “catatonically depressed” over the death of his student lover.

My heart is beating rapidly; I can feel it flip-flopping around in my chest. To distract myself, I approach Stefano’s bookshelf and automatically begin removing one Pléiade edition after another. I page through the lovely printed sheets that seem to be offering me a purchase on wisdom and clarity, but in light of my state of mind, the French seems particularly dense and hard to comprehend. If only I could find a way to start writing again.

I glance over at Ed’s manuscript and now feel myself unhealthily drawn back to it, as strong as the urge to scrape my fingernails across an itching rash. I have to know just how miserable I made him and can’t help but begin reading again, specifically about what happened in October, a month or so after I started living at his apartment.

Ed describes a particular evening when he’d escorted a rich unmarried woman of a certain age to a dinner party and how I met him afterward at a bridge that connects the Right Bank to the Ile Saint-Louis. This
particular
bridge is known as a cruising area; before Ed arrived, I was overtly propositioned by two old trolls. It was a chilly evening, and there were sprites of damp breezes pirouetting off the Seine. Finally I saw him
rounding
a corner, walking at a brisk pace. He was holding a tightly rolled-up copy of a newspaper. Upon reaching me, he held up
France Soir
and said nervously, “There’s something here I’d like you to see.” He led me over to the nearest street lamp, which arched above us with a long swanlike neck. He was dressed in a dark pinstripe Italian suit that, like many of his clothes, was beyond his means but which had been bought impulsively in the midst of a snowballing credit-card debt. The suit had an admirable, slimming effect.

Exfoliating the onion-thin newsprint pages, he showed me what at first appeared to be a typical gossipy article about a haute couture benefit on the avenue Victor Hugo, then zeroed in on a sentence. “And there was Madame Michel Soyer, whom we haven’t seen much of in the wake of her separation from her dashing husband, the president of Jeunesse Fabrique.”

Shocked, I reread the sentence, flummoxed by the word
separation
. In light of everything Michel had told me apropos his secure marriage, that nothing would ever induce him and Laurence to separate, I imagined it might have been somehow easier to read his obituary.

Pointing to the article, Ed said, “Is this the Michel you’ve been talking about?” He turned to me. “I thought when you first mentioned him something was familiar. When I read the article I realized that I actually knew him.” Ed tightly refolded the newspaper and with a smug grin said, “In fact, I have my own little
histoire
with him.”

I cringed. “Meaning?”

“Meaning we had a little
flingée
ten or twelve years ago when I was in my late forties. Still in my prime.” He laughed self-deprecatingly.

I looked at Ed in bewilderment; this
was
certainly a bizarre
coincidence
. He completely misinterpreted my expression. “What’s so surprising about that?”

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