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Acqua Alta, by Jane Ciabattari

From inside you hear screams, moans, a few words. All you understand is “Nyet.”

It’s November in the public gardens of Venice. Lowering skies, no sun for six days, damp leaves underfoot, the skeletons of trees emerging. An obscuring mist alternates with downpours. You’re standing outside the curtain to the Russian Pavilion at the Biennale with the man you love.

The explanation on the wall, in English, calls this work the “Amnesia Sphere.” A man in a mental hospital in the Crimea is being given memory-destroying electroshock treatment. A critic calls the work “the Biennale’s deepest obscenity.”

“You shouldn’t go in there,” you say.

He stops.

You point out the text. He reads it and his face darkens. “I’ll wait outside,” he says.

You recognize this shadow that’s come over him. It’s part of his winter self, more pronounced this year. Standing stiff in his khaki pants and dark turtleneck and jacket, he’s striking, with angular cheekbones, deep-set brown eyes, auburn hair grown long on the sides.

 

His velvety voice wakes you, not long after you meet on a blind date.

“It’s like a carousel,” he says, “shimmering at night, like when I was a kid and we went to the rodeo and saw the riders, saw how easily the bull’s horns could pierce through them, how the hooves could crush them, if they fell off. And then we’re on the bucking horses, lights flaring around us. Memories are like that.” He pauses. “Fragments of before. Before she died. What she was like. I was a boy, protected by her armor. Afterward, I fell into pieces.”

Is he dreaming? Is this real?

He’s “damaged,” he says, he’s falling in love and he has to be honest. He says he can’t stay with you unless you know this piece of him, his time in the “loony bin,” he calls it. Shock treatments, like in Cuckoo’s Nest, he says. You laugh, thinking he’s joking. One thing you know about him already: He’s prone to embellished storytelling, big time. It’s part of his allure.

He can’t go inside, you can. You are the strong one, the one who acts despite the fear. Untamed. Curious.

You draw the curtain aside. You want to know how he felt, all those years ago when this happened to him, before you knew him. He’s never told the full story. He’s not withholding, you’ve decided. He doesn’t remember.

The room is dark. The moaning is loud. There’s a raised dome made of metal bars, with several steps going up. Walking toward the center of the dome, you see a flickering image, like a dark fire, blacks and whites only. It takes a few seconds to register a man’s face, projected from a camera in the ceiling, the face so large it disintegrates into pixels.

Nyet!” the stranger cries, his face grim with terror. Another man holds him down. You don’t see that man’s face, only his hands pressing the nyet man down, attaching electrodes to his temples. The nyet man struggles. Nothing can save him yet he doesn’t submit. “Nyet!” the sound loop repeats.

Don’t touch the electrical outlet. Don’t stand under a tree during a thunderstorm, you might get hit by lightning. Who dreamed up this punishment? Electrical currents in the brain, then descent into blackness. And upon awakening? A blank, he says.

Around the walls are cheerful photographs. The long forced march to socialist realism. The text says the Soviet system used “memory-destroying psychiatric treatment” to “quell its dissidents.”

 

That evening, the drizzle steadily falling, you settle into a canal-side seat at a restaurant with revolving lights overhead and gondola lanterns flicking past. You eat squid ink pasta and drink the gentle Venetian Pinot Grigio. You see a commotion at the window. The glass lowers and a woman steps from a gondola, her curly hair sparkling red in the lamplight. She wears a floor-length emerald green gown and cape. She has four or five friends with her. She’s the one you’ll remember years from now—the flushed face, the braided tassels, a darker green, hanging down to her waist. The others are a blur. Three of them? Four?

He‘s saying something. He hasn’t forgotten your private adventure in the pavilion.

“They came once a week,” he says, “and took you to the room. Bound you to the contraption, plugged up your mouth, spoke those honeyed lies. Then came the shattering, and when you woke up, they handed you doughnuts. You were in a room with others like you. You scanned them. Were they okay? Would they help you? Could they?”

“How did you get out?”

“I fought it at first, then they upped my shocks to twice a week. I could hardly remember who I was. I was about to give up, find a way to off myself, when another patient taught me the game. He was a piano player. Blues. He said he needed me to turn his pages. What pages? He played it all by heart. But I just went up there and sat on the bench, and he whispered to me while he played: ‘You got to get hip to the game. They want you to line up with certain behaviors. So you learn to fake it.’”

“Fake it?” I asked.

“Put on a happy face. Easy.”

“So that’s how you got out?” You laugh. You wish he’d try it now.

“Right. I got out. And then my life began.”

He works hard, drawing upon some strange engineering talent that put him at the top of some algorithm chain where he was called upon to consider snarls and Artificial Intelligence failures in countries around the globe. Something like that, you can never understand. He has money enough, until lately. You’re not sure what has changed.

You have a good job where you connect color and music and text and make people happy. Producer, curator, whatever they call it, you mix together the artists who know how to do things and what they make is what people want. And you get paid and together you and your team win awards.

 

Venice is dismal. Cold stone churchyards, freezing rain, an autumnal darkness that seems to trigger his further descent into gloom. And yet.

On the terrace of the Peggy Guggenheim Museum, overlooking the canal, you both stop abruptly at the Marino Marini sculptor of a gleeful man with an exuberant erection astride a horse. “It’s called The Angel of the City,” you say. He nods, but doesn’t smile. The museum’s guide drifts by. “It’s removable, in case we have a group of students, or nuns,” she says.

You suggest a long bath together by candlelight in the marble hotel bathroom with its heated floor. You melt into the steamy tub, lying glued together on the submerged underwater bench, its hot water jets washing the worry away, your nipples hardening as you feel him rising against your thigh.

 

You wake to sirens. From the balcony, you hear the tides slapping against the shores of the lagoon, like a giant bathtub overflowing.

He’s sunk back into himself. Why? You don’t know. You’re not sure he slept. You don’t want to ask.

He’s talking softly, almost whispering.

“Memory loss is the hardest,” he says. “You’re a boy, then a teen, and you turn twenty and you get the call she’s died and you go into this fog. You recall pieces, her car, the way she shared a cigarette with you when you were sixteen, her bright laugh, but nothing makes sense and all you know for sure is she would be ashamed of you for all that’s happened, all you haven’t done.”

“But she must have loved you so much,” you say.

“She wanted a law degree, children, stability. Not me.”

“But you have your own specialty,” you argue, quietly, reasonably, you think.

“You don’t get it,” he says. “I’ve failed. I’m solitary. I work alone, cut off from the world out there. You journey out and come back, you’re able to cope. If I put myself into a position where I can’t cope, I’m afraid I’ll go nuts again and I’ll never get out.”

His voice softens. “And I’ll lose you, too.”

“That won’t happen,” you say, taking him in your arms and stroking his hair. His shoulders are shaking. How does he do it, change from one person into another? It’s tied to the gloom of winter, but this time it’s the worst you have seen.

“This isn’t real,” you say, taking a risk. “It’s not you. Remember, you told me about how your mind’s voice attacks you? And then it goes away? It will go away. I love you.”

You think, this is a story about love. The easy times of falling in love. The ghosts of the past. The mystery of the man who has lost memory, the man you are losing.

Today he’s not the person you love. He’s been taken over by someone else. How often has he fallen into darkness during your eight years together, for reasons you can’t fathom? How often is he who he was when you first met?

You think of the man you will never know. The man before all this happened. There was more to him before you knew him. Some person he never became. Has he ever been himself with you?

You feel helpless in the face of this transformation. Each time he descends you wonder, Will he come back? When? How? Can you save him? Over and over? For how many years?

There’s a knock on the door. You pull on the ruby-colored robe and open to the waiter with a pot of espresso and two tiny gold-rimmed cups and saucers.

“Just put it over there,” you say, pointing to the corner table. He’s the same waiter you’ve had all week, not too tall, lean as a dancer in his black suit and pure white shirt, with dark hair cut short and sunken brown eyes. He seems the verge of smiling, but he never does.

“What’s going on outside?” he asks from the bed.

“Acqua alta,” the waiter explains, crossing to the windows and pulling open the curtains, exposing the relentless greyness. “It’s common here. Scirocco winds from Africa, the pull of the moon, high tides in the lagoon, the winds keep the tides from leaving the lagoon. It won’t last long.”

How can he be so sure?

 

When you go to the first floor for breakfast, the hallway to the dock has wooden slats laid down. The waterside restaurant is flooded. You eat omelets and drink more espresso in the unflooded café.

“Time for a walk,” you say, hoping it will bring him back to himself. The concierge provides thigh-high rubber boots.

A sea of dark clouds surrounds you. Sheets of water pour from the sky, merging with puddles and it’s all reflected in the muddy canal and for a minute you’re caught up in a dizzying spiral of flickering water.

Piazza San Marco has flooded and is filled with gondolas. The wooden sidewalks creak as you walk above the rushing water. He’s silent until you reach the Bridge of Sighs. “Prisoners had their last taste of freedom here,” he reads from the guide. “If a couple goes under the bridge in a boat, and if they kiss, they will be together forever.” You can tell by his pause that he wants you to go with him and do this.

“We could rent a gondola,” he says.

You hesitate. Forever seems too long. “Not in this rain,” you say.

He looks away, stares at a square of white limestone. “I knew I’d lose you too,” he says so softly it seems like an illusion. “I’m going alone.”

He’s in the gondola before you can answer. The dark-clad boatman carries him away. As they disappear around a curve, you see him stand, stumble, fall into the water, and sink. You rush after, along the cobblestone pathways, the arched bridges, you search, and find nothing. He’s gone.

You see him sinking into the churning water, into mud, into solitude. Disappearing. You will report him missing, the Italian police will search, dragging the waters, finding nothing, thinking perhaps you have imagined it, that he’s left you, that you’re covering up. This image of him sinking is what you remember most about the trip. You failed. You couldn’t save him.

 

Months later, in the candlelit back garden of his favorite Italian restaurant in the city, he tells a circle of your friends the story of your precious vacation in Venice, the truffled pasta, the prosecco, his eyes sparkling, his tender mouth in a wry smile, his audience responding to his warmth, asking questions, laughing.

You laugh, too; you’re the only one who sees through his honeyed lies.

 

Jane Ciabattari is the author of Stealing the Fire. Her short stories have been published in or are forthcoming in Nothing Short of 100, A Book on the Table, New Flash Fiction Review, Long Island Noir, The Literarian, Literary Mama, Ms. Magazine, The North American Review, Denver Quarterly, Hampton Shorts, The East Hampton Star, and Redbook. Ciabattari writes the "Between the Lines" for BBC Culture and a weekly column for The Literary Hub, and is a regular contributor to NPR. Her book reviews and cultural criticism have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, Bookforum, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Paris Review, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Chicago Tribune, and Poets & Writers. She served as National Book Critics Circle president from 2008-2011, and as NBCC vice president/online from 2013 to 2019. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and Sonoma County, CA.

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