… bada ai deliri / vani e bugiardi …1

I’m particularly intrigued by this Jane person, or persona, whom many of my Facebook friends — that is, “friends” — must think I resemble. Not in specific details, of course, but in the sense of a somewhat fugitive identity.

“… [N]obody I knew had ever met her. Some of the people who “liked” and commented on her status updates were well-known journalists, doctors, and lawyers. Jane unwittingly gave clues daily that she didn’t live in or even near New York City…. She’d post that she was getting red-carpet ready for a gala and then, two hours later, post a tipsy update revealing that she was watching Sex and the City reruns at home alone….” [Ann Leary, LitHub]

One key difference is that most of my wild claims, arguably wilder than Jane’s, are generally too daft not to be true. As to the untrue ones, I had thought that these — such as my living in a lighthouse on an island northeast of Tasmania, or that I potter away my days in a hammock, sipping Nismes-Delclou while puffing on Gauloises — were pretty obvious for their hyperbolic self-mockery. There’s no Armagnac. There are no cigarettes, no hammock. Swan Island does exist — you can locate it from Low Earth Orbit. I’ve simply never set foot on it.

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Swan Island, Tasmania, from altitude of 258 miles

One Facebook friend — a public intellectual and Third-Wave polemicist I idolize, a wonderful essayist whose page I joined with the ardor of a third-grader signing up for Mickey Mantle’s fan club — remarked that among several illustrious acquaintance (whom we happen to have in common in social media) I had earned the status of “mysterious.” This I took for flattery until I realized that mysterious was merely a euphemism for something’s not right here. In fact she put it almost exactly so: “… it really just doesn’t add up.” Which is indeed the case. If you’re the Man Without Qualities, possessor of dozens of modest talents, none of them really on a level to pay off importantly, that’s how it looks. You’re a self-inflated fool, a sham. You’re Walter Mitty, or Zelig, exerting some force of vain fantasy on an otherwise profoundly humdrum existence.

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This was brought home to be recently in very tangible terms. Returning by bicycle from a training session — tactical drills pertaining to echelons, if you must know — with a few young students, all of whom had long since peeled off in their various homeward directions, I pedaled through the grounds of a senior center that abuts my neighborhood. It’s a shortcut for me. (I hope they don’t mind; usually neither tenants nor staff seem to be visible.) On this occasion one tiny, hunched-over woman sat on a bench in the garden courtyard. She was so motionless, her posture so crumpled and twisted, I worried she might have expired there, burst an aneurism, without anyone’s noticing. In front of her was an aluminum walker; on the ground her sunhat, scuttling about in a mild breeze.

On the pretext that she might like me to retrieve the hat, I waved and said hello. She waved back. (Phew: not dead, not paralyzed.)

“Can I fetch that for you?”

She looked me up and down, presumably suspicious — wisely! — of the lycra racing kit I was wearing. “Oh, sure, that would be nice.”

I handed her the hat and sat down next to her.

“Thank you, young man.” (Young man — now there’s a phrase that feels puzzling, even alarming, to someone in his sixties. But surmising that she must be ninety herself, or nearing that, I considered that the relative difference in our ages, rather than my age, was the defining factor.)

“Is there anything else I can help you with?” I asked. It just seemed like a higher quality of patter than the usual isn’t-this-lovely-weather platitude, which must — more than pain or loneliness — drive up suicide rates among the elderly.

“Help me with? What could you help me with?” As soon as she said it I realized I had no plan as to what might count as help to someone sitting on a bench in the day’s waning light, as if inhabiting an allegory of her very existence.

“Well, I could spin you round the dance floor.” I gestured toward the grassy area surrounding a gurgling fountain. She laughed.

“Waltz?” I said. “Foxtrot? Rhumba? I could do Nijinsky’s role in L’Après-midi d’un faune — you wouldn’t have to move a muscle. Or we could just sit here and canoodle, but I probably don’t smell good enough at the moment for canoodling. Also, I’m not sure what the word ‘canoodle’ means — God knows what I’d be getting myself into.” She laughed even harder. I said, “What about a carafe of chilled martinis?”

“Oh, now that sounds good!” She knew I was winding her up but played along. “I can still handle my booze, you better be careful.”

“In that case, how about some opera? Puccini? Verdi? I could sing some Verdi for you. Something from Aida, maybe, something from Otello — in Boito’s Italian.”

Before she had a chance to assent — and fearing she might — I said, “Or maybe a poem, anything you want — you choose. So long as it’s not ‘Casey at the Bat.’ That’s probably the only poem I can’t recite by heart.”

She saved us both. “Well … what about Shelley, something by Shelley. When I was a girl, I adored him more than all the poets. So handsome!”

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Shelley, by Amelia Curran

Wait, I thought, she knew him personally? Some quick arithmetic put that idea to rest: not even a hundred-ninety would have made it possible. She was basing this opinion on, what — Amelia Curran’s 1819 portrait? Or perhaps Douglas Walton’s performance as the poet in The Bride of Frankenstein. (It’s not implausible that she could have seen this when it arrived in theaters, in 1935.)

“OK,” I said, “tell me if you can guess what these lines are from …

And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea: 
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?”

“Beautiful,” she said. “And I was starting to think you were all talk, honey — no action. Promises you couldn’t keep. I believe it’s from ‘Love’s Philosophy.’ Am I right?” She paused for a few seconds, clearly contemplating. “There’s just one thing that’s bothering me. You remind me of my late husband. I really loved him, and he loved me. Boy did he love me! But I gotta say — that man was a con artist.”

  1. Iago, Otello, Act III, scene iii, Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Arrigo Boito, 1887