Twenty-six-year-old Rónán Joshua Fielder was struck for the first time in his sheltered life by a colpo di fulmine. Do you understand the connotation of this term? Those of you who recall a particular sixteen-second Sicilian scene in The Godfather do; to the rest of you it will become clear soon.
Rónán had a basketball guard’s body, and underneath a trimmed and lined auburn beard he looked a little like Leonardo DiCaprio, who was another Scorpio: a water sign. Rónán possessed a memory like a bottlenose dolphin. The sense of humour of a Hollywood Improv stand-up. Deaf in one ear, his left one. Rónán’s eyelids were often half-closed, the sign of a born listener. Generous, as an only child generally is: he had difficulty saying No to an entreaty from a street person. Rónán presented with the symptoms of a mild case of OCD. He lived alone.
She too was alone, on that first day, in self-effacement on the outside left seat of the last row of a lecture hall at the University of California. She wore no make-up, coalescing blonde sang-froid with romanesque. A junior from Europe studying abroad in her own uni’s “free mover” program, she resembled a twenty-two-year-old version of Marthe Keller. She had secrets she told only to her pink pillow.
The class was popular among aspiring sociologists, political scientists, and gender advocates: ‘Movements, Revolutions, and Transformation’, soon to become known to everyone in the class by its acronym. Rónán, a second-year PhD student, was the Teaching Assistant; in such rôle he was a rookie and was paid UAW-scale.
Her name was Caramella. Rónán noticed her that first day, because that’s squarely where he would have sat.
Several weeks later, on the midterm, Rónán gave Caramella a C. It was the lowest grade of sixty-eight in the class. During Rónán’s next office hours Caramella showed up.
“I don’t do this often,” she said, positioning her exam on the desk between them.
“Do what?” said Rónán.
“Complain about grades.”
“So why start now?”
“I never got a C before. I studied hard, but I was just beat the morning of the test. I work late nights.”
“Don’t worry about it; you can make it up on the final. My Marxist mentor wrote a book How to Take an Exam & Remake the World. Take a look at it and you’ll never get another C. You don’t even have to buy it: it’s online.”
“But it’s not a matter of testing. This subject interests me. I want to learn.”
“ . . . ”
“It’s true, Rónán,” she said. “I’m probably the only student in the class who’s done all the assigned reading.”
Rónán liked the way the syllables of his name lolled on her accented tongue. “Ti saluto,” he said. “Even I haven’t done all the assigned reading.”
“I’m going over to sit with a Starbucks. Would you keep me company?”
“Sure,” he said.
Over a Caramel Macchiato, Rónán found Caramella enigmatic and enticing. However, inhibited by years of mandatory online sexual harassment training at myriad academic institutions, Rónán neither changed her grade nor asked for her number.
The following week, Caramella remained in her seat until the other students had exited the hall. On the front table, Rónán was alphabetising five dozen reflection papers, and lamenting the at-least-ten hours for their requisite marking that would gazump his plans to play Xbox.
This day, Caramella was wearing make-up, Pour le Monde® Together all natural eau de parfum, a scarlet off-the-shoulder peasant top, biscuit-coloured designer cigarette jeans, and peep toe sandals. She swayed down the steps to the table.
“I wonder if you would tutor me, Rónán?” she said.
“I don’t know. I’m pretty busy. I’ve got not only this class to teach: I’m also taking two seminars, I’m trying to draft my thesis before Christmas, and I’m coëditing a five-hundred-page book on comparative law.”
“Well, will you at least think about it? I could really use your help, and of course I would pay for it. May I offer you my cell?”
For a moment, Rónán thought Caramella had said myself.
“Sure,” he said.
Rónán handed Caramella his iPhone, which no one other than he had touched since the at&t salesman on Union Street back home in San Francisco. If someone had touched his iPhone, Rónán would have alcoholled it with a microfiber lens cleaning cloth.
Caramella touched in her digits, handed back the iPhone, and smirked. She pivoted and walked up the steps.
Rónán was the only offspring of a Jewish-Irish marriage, what writer Frank O’Connor describes as the loneliest combination of submerged populations one can imagine. The end, perhaps, of a four-millennia line.
Since thirteen, Rónán had been cautioned by both parents that girls could be a distraction. A distraction from basketball, a distraction from school, a distraction from work. Rónán had heeded this warning, more or less, through the first year of his PhD program.
Now, however, Rónán felt compelled by, in words from Anatomy of a Murder—the only black-and-white film he deigned to watch—an irresistible impulse. Restless that night, he texted Caramella: Happy 2 tutor u MRT u dont hv 2 pay maybe u can tutor me french (if u spk it).
The locus in quo for Rónán and Caramella’s reciprocal instruction was Rónán’s Goleta walk-up apartment, which overlooked a gated outdoor Olympic swimming pool, separate Jacuzzi, and—between the apartment’s terrace and the pool’s gate—a verdant manicured lawn splayed by a concrete path, like a landing strip, bordered by yellow-white Santa Barbara honeysuckle. The chlorinated waters from pool and spa, prior to Caramella’s visitation, had never touched Rónán’s skin.
Beginning in late October, they would get together Friday afternoons. At first for two hours. Then longer. Rónán regaled Caramella with extemporaneous MRT mini-lectures on Black Lives Matter, gilets jaunes, and the Rodotà Commission on the commons in Italy. When he got animated about these topics, Rónán would talk fast and slur his esses in eagerness: he evoked Marv Albert’s exclamation before Game Seven of the 1970 NBA Finals as Willis Reed limped through the Madison Square Garden tunnel: “Here comzsh Willizsh . . . and the crowd izsh going wild!”
Satisfying her part of the bargain, Caramella would read aloud to Rónán, paragraph by paragraph, Le dix-huit Brumaire de Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, and Rónán would attempt its English translation. To spice things up, sometimes they performed this act in reverse. To Rónán, who liked to conjure words, the exaggerated enunciation of the French tongue was ‘luxuriation over the mundane’; he had never understood the lingual seduction of his father Ira—an Anglo-Montréaler—by the Éric Rohmer films about Maud, Claire, and Pauline.
At sunset the terrace welcomed from the neighbour above a skunky translucent fog with hints of orange, pine, or sage, which delivered reefer relaxation if not euphoria. If Caramella wanted to stay for dinner, Rónán would order pizza, Chinese, or Mexican. From time to time they would watch Real Time with Bill Maher. Caramella would always leave the apartment by eight-fifteen: she had to go to work, which started at ten.
Caramella didn’t volunteer any information about her job or personal history. And Rónán was too besotted to ask.
By the week before finals, Rónán and Caramella had together explored variegated acts of venery, except sex per se in the Bill Clintonean sense. In this endeavour, Caramella used all her powers and all her skills gained on the job at the Peppermint Zebra Gentlemen’s Club in Santa Barbara. Unbeknownst to Rónán, Caramella did not wish ever to procreate, or to incur any risk of so doing.
For the first time since leaving San Francisco as a college freshman eight years earlier, Rónán did not want to go home for Christmas break. When he revealed this, reluctantly, to his mother Nessa by phone, she said that she and Ira could come to Goleta during finals week and sojourn at Rónán’s apartment through Christmas. After all, said Nessa, it was she who had found the apartment in the first place, and they were subsidising its rent. The apartment had a second bedroom and a second bathroom, and they had enjoyed their previous visits there.
There was a full week in December between the MRT final exam—twenty-five multiple choice questions and two essays from a menu of Occupy Wall Street, Moms Demand Action, Subcomandante Marcos, and Greta Thunberg—and the administrative deadline for Rónán’s forwarding its grades to the class’s professor. That week, there would be no ‘tutoring’.
At Thursday dinner, which she cooked for the three of them, Nessa asked Rónán, “Are you ordering in tomorrow night?”
“Actually, can we go out for dinner? There’s someone I want you to meet.”
This was out of the blue. Fridays were habitually ‘in-for-the-day’ days for Rónán; since he had been a college freshman, and continuing through law school, he had arranged his academic schedule to avoid Friday classes. “Who’s that?” Nessa said.
“A girl. Caramella. She’s a study-abroad European undergrad in the class I’m teaching. I’ve been tutoring her on Fridays, but not tomorrow. She also reads Marx to me in French. I think you’ll like her.”
The following evening, Rónán, Nessa, and Ira walked the ten minutes from Rónán’s apartment over Hollister Avenue to jane | at the marketplace, which had become one of their favourite neighbourhood restaurants. The reservation was for six-thirty.
Caramella was waiting at the entrance. Rónán introduced her to his parents, and the four of them walked inside. The maîtresse d’hôtel ushered them to their table, and handed out menus. “Your server will be with you in a moment,” she said.
For a few minutes they made small talk: Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in the UK, the Trump impeachment debate, the superstition of Friday the thirteenth.
Nessa sipped and blessed the wine with a nod and a smile. “In vino veritas,” she said, focussing her female gaze on Caramella.
Their glasses were filled, other than Rónán’s: he had never acquired the taste. Then their waiter asked if they had decided.
“I believe we’re ready,” said Ira. “Caramella, what would you like?”
“I’ll have the grilled filet mignon, incinerated. Oh, no! I mean well done. With oyster mushrooms, herb cream, seasonal vegetables, and scalloped potatoes.”
After the others had ordered—Nessa, seared ahi and garlic crusted prawns with watercress, butter lettuce, cucumber noodles, Daikon sprouts, and sesame vinaigrette; Rónán, The Greek Vegetarian; and Ira, plain penne pasta with virgin olive oil and chopped tomatoes—Caramella revisited her own order with the waiter: “Does it come with a salad?”
“Unfortunately not, mademoiselle,” said the waiter. “Salad is à la carte. We do have a roasted beet salad, an iceberg wedge, an organic mixed green salad, and our Jane’s Caesar salad. Shall I put you down for one of them?”
“No, grazie,” said Caramella.
The waiter nodded, and walked away humming a tune from Cabaret.
“So, Caramella, where is home for you?” said Nessa. “Do you miss it? I bet you do.”
“Switzerland. A quiet Blenio Valley village. A few hundred people. Semione. I love it there.”
By stroke of synchronicity, Nessa had a close friend—a former business colleague—who lived with his wife in Semione, in the canton of Ticino at the base of the Alps. Two summers before, Nessa had attended her friend’s celebration-of-life party and sojourned one night at Pension Villa Ricordo, a short walk away. She had befriended the host there, Sonia Loosli. The next day Nessa had visited the Oratory of Santa Maria Bambina on Mount Navone. “Semione? I don’t believe it!” she said.
Rónán beamed at Caramella, delighted that she was bonding with his mother. Truth be told, he had been apprehensive about their meeting.
“What do you mean?” said Caramella.
“I’ve been there myself. Do you know the Pension Villa Dimentico?”
“And its host, Sofiya Füssli?” said Nessa.
“Of course, I know her.”
“And the Oratory of Santa Apollonia—”
Rónán froze: this last question he had heard clearly by swivelling his head to his left. He recalled the name of the chapel visited by Nessa on Mount Navone; for sure, it was not Santa Apollonia. And Rónán was familiar with this particular dinner scene. Marathon Man was one of Ira’s favourite films, and the Fielders watched it together every couple of years, most recently this past summer: Nessa was now channelling Dustin Hoffman’s protective older brother Roy Scheider, who ambushes Hoffman’s girlfriend over dinner at an upscale Manhattan restaurant into revealing she’s been lying about her nationality.
“Oh, yes!” said Caramella.
“—on Monte San Giorgio?”
“Oh, yes, yes!”
It was obvious to Nessa that Caramella had just lied four times. But why was she lying? And what should Nessa do about it? Nessa could sense danger: she could hear the vibrations of—and feel the wind from—rotors of helicopters before they appeared on the horizon. Nessa glanced to her right at Rónán, who was staring down at his cutlery with his ears red. She detected a look of confusion, a look of disappointment. Did he know?
In that moment, Nessa resolved not to talk about this with Rónán, at least not for a while. Because she knew that the intelligence she had just garnered would make scant difference to the way Rónán felt about this woman: he would say, “It is what it is. I don’t think I should put up a fuss. Hakuna Matata!”
The Fielders were back in Rónán’s apartment before eight-thirty.
Over the weekend, Rónán did not discuss Caramella with either Nessa or Ira.
All day Saturday, all day Sunday, and all day Monday, he marked the final exams of the MRT class and emailed the grades seriatim to the professor.
He gave Caramella an Incomplete; this had nothing to do with the Friday dinner conversation: she had failed to write either essay.
After all grades were posted online by the professor, Rónán called Caramella. The number was disconnected. He emailed her; there was no reply.
A week went by, during which Rónán had difficulty eating, sleeping, thinking. He tried to edit and build upon the twenty thousand words extant in the draft of his thesis on applied dialectics; he could not. When the three Fielders watched Netflix or Amazon Prime Video (they were binge watching Hanna), over breakfast or over dinner, Rónán evidenced no interest. He didn’t even want to play Xbox.
By now, the capricious Caramella had travelled almost six thousand miles, through night and fog, twenty hours back to her ancestral home. Not Semione, Switzerland: one hundred twenty-five miles to its north-northwest, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. There, she would reënrol at Albert-Ludwigs-Universität (where, by coïncidence, Rónán had the previous year been invited to a conference at the Institut für Soziologie).
Caramella was seeking liberation and absolution from the sins of a forefather who cast a shadow over eight decades. Needless operations. Amputations. Experimental mutilations. Flight to Italy, Argentina, Paraguay, then Brazil, where he cultivated coffee, ranched cattle, married, and went on holidays; he drowned in the ocean and was buried under a pseudonym. Years later, a DNA match and unsettling limelight, again, on her family. All this, before Caramella was even born.
« Je ne suis pas responsable, » Caramella thought. “Ich bin nicht schuldig.”
Christmas was coming. Early one morning, Nessa called back to Rónán’s bathroom when she heard him whistling. “Do you want a cup of coffee, Sweetie?” she said.
“With Natural Bliss almond milk creamer?”
“Of course, if that’s what you want.”
“Sure. Whatever is easiest for you.”
Nessa had already brewed the coffee, two hours before, and was keeping it hot for Rónán. Now, she poured in the Natural Bliss, positioned his law school mug on a peacock blue mosaic serving tray, carried the tray back to his bedroom, and placed it smack on his bedside table.
“Does it come with a salad?” said Rónán, over the sink’s running faucet. The pitch of his voice, which cancelled out his intended whimsy, perplexed him.
Hovering like a pink hummingbird hawk-moth by the closed bathroom door, Nessa overlooked Rónán’s quip and opted instead for magnanimity. “You know, Sweetie,” she said, “you’re far better off this way. There are other fish in the rivers.”
Rónán, his waist wrapped in a 2009 Los Angeles Lakers NBA Champions towel and staring into the mirror, was about to retort. But he changed his mind. He was smiling, but the smile was not at all like his usual smile.
Something—something just beyond the grasp of his hippocampus—had slipped away. The enigma was akin to digesting a dense passage from The Civil War in France, imagining a word in one of its paragraphs, and rereading that paragraph immediately but being unable to find the word. Was it really there? Rónán struggled now to put his finger on what it was that was eluding him.
Once, when Rónán was a boy—it was towards the end of Bill Clinton’s second term—Nessa had arranged a surprise birthday weekend for Ira of flyfishing on private water. In the traditional territory of the Yana Yahi, three-plus hours northeast of San Francisco by silver 1988 BMW 325isA. On the Friday evening drive up into the mountains, Ira—usually taciturn, but loquacious behind the wheel, and woke before woke was chic—told Nessa and Rónán that he’d read Yana men and women spoke different tongues from each other.
The second night, over dinner, Ira claimed it was impossible to catch anything because it was too sunny and hot outside.
“I can do it, Daddy,” Rónán said.
After ice cream sundaes, Ira selected a tiny sulphur dun at the fly shop adjacent the lobby, and retrieved his three-piece Sage rod from the top row of the handcarved wooden wall rack on the redwood deck of the lodge. The three Fielders strolled down the front lawn to the edge of the deep Home Pool.
Ira knotted the sulphur dun to a 7X tippet, sprinkled floatant on the fly, and pressed up against Rónán’s back to guide their collaborative right-handed back cast and forward cast. The celadon floating line and fluorocarbon leader unfurled tightly and straight above the alder-shaded stream. The sulphur fly soft-landed on the fast glassy seam of the current against the far bank, and began its drag-free drift. Within seconds, a fifteen-inch rainbow trout rose and sucked down the fly. The line tugged twice; Rónán struck and set the hook. The rod bent, Rónán lifted it and reeled in the rainbow, and Ira netted it.
“That’s how it’s done, Daddy,” Rónán said, smiling and handing the rod back to Ira. Then, Rónán had knelt down, dipped his hands into the cool fresh water, unhooked the barb from the fish’s jaw, and released her back into the wild.
All that was an abstraction. Now, Rónán remembered what it was he’d been struggling to remember: the image landed in his mind. It was a grandstanding line, a throwaway, in one of the essay answers to the final exam: a student invoked Marx but relied lazily on libquotes.com for the quotation, which omitted an adjective, erred on the preposition, and cited to the book Herr Vogt (1860).
Rónán knew better, and had graded the student down accordingly. The accurate quotation—from two decades later—was sheltered in a loving letter from Marx to his daughter Jennychen:
There is only one effective antidote for mental suffering, and that is physical pain.
A sense of solidarity came over Rónán. For the first time of what would develop into a new compulsion, he washed his hands slowly in scalding water.