Detail from Da Vinci's "Portrait of a Musician." Credit: Leonardo Da Vinci, via Wikipedia
Flying home alone to resolve a household emergency after weeks of living in Rome, where my husband had a teaching gig, I sat beside two handsome Italian guys in their 40s, friends since boyhood. They had left wives and children behind for their annual trip to a part of the world neither had visited yet, and this year the destination was Seattle.
As we talked, I rummaged through mental images of my home city for favorite places I could urge them to visit, but my mind's eye and taste buds were freshly charged with Roman experiences. What in Seattle could compare? Marco's daily route in Rome took him past spectacular fountains and statues. His best friend Giovanni, who lived in Florence, was surrounded by Renaissance palaces. Would the radiant austerity of Seattle U’s Chapel of St. Ignatius impress a visitor accustomed to St. Peter's or to Santa Maria Novella? The Seattle restaurants I love best are Italian; could they stand up to the excellent trattoria on almost every Roman or Florentine street corner? My beloved hometown, so rich in daily possibilities, suddenly seemed a little impoverished.
It was a relief when Marco and Giovanni told me their vacation would be a 10-day hike in the Cascades along a route they had already plotted. Dropping my Domestic Rick Steves role I turned again to read my book, a nice long Anthony Trollope novel (aren't they all?).
I mean, I tried to read my book. It was hard to focus. The person sitting beside me wasn't merely handsome. He was the most beautiful man I had ever seen. In profile Marco was the Platonic Idea of Beauty, and frontally his visage was so perfect I was chagrined to have faced it with the poor cave-bound Shadow that was my own. Why did this divinity work for a living when he should be showered 24/7 with Heaven's gold? How did his colleagues accomplish anything? I don't mean to say that he inspired romantic notions. He just looked like an angel.
Like the speaker in Housman's poem about the finite number of seasons we're given to enjoy the “Loveliest of trees” in bloom (“Fifty springs are little room”), individuals of a certain age will travel miles hither and yon just to stand and gaze at examples of this world's astonishing natural beauty. The natural beauty I’m talking about was in the hither category — six inches away.
After dinner my seatmates fell asleep. Ours was a bulkhead row, with a space in front of the seats that was wide enough to stand in. So I stood, turned to face the rear of the plane, held Can You Forgive Her? up in the glow of the ceiling lamp, and lowered the book just enough to be able to watch, over the top of it, the face of the sleeping angel in Seat B. After an hour or so, during which I sometimes remembered to sustain the charade by turning pages, I had finally gazed my fill and sat down again to read for real.
At the arrival gate I retrieved my tote from the overhead bin, my novel still in hand, and saw a passenger farther back wink at me with what looked like a meaning glance at my seatmates. “Oops!” I said to myself. “Caught red-handed … er, red-eyed!” Could I explain to the guy that secretly (ha!) watching my divine neighbor sleep was an aesthetic experience fitting Stephen Daedalus’s definition in Portrait of the Artist: static and impersonal, free of any desire to possess? Would the guy believe that I might feel pretty much the same while gazing at Housman’s trees?
My winking nemesis gave me a conspiratorial grin as he leaned in my direction over the seat backs. I blushed with embarrassment at the joke he was about to make at my expense. And he said, with a knowing air of superior fellowship, “Isn't Trollope wonderful?”
I totally agreed.