She will drink too much wine. She will smoke too much pot. She
will drop out of school and make her way to Europe, and eventually she’ll
find herself on her own in a country where she doesn’t speak the language
and too poor to buy a plane ticket home. She’ll wander aimlessly, hungry,
That’s you, Nora.
She, Nora Owen, driven by the rain toward the little church on
Via dei Servi, where she will stumble past an old Gypsy woman huddled on the
entrance step and will make her way through the gloom of the empty church to a
pew behind the transept. She will settle on the bench and close her eyes,
fighting the temptation to melt away to nothing inside the bundle of her old
down vest and ratty jeans. She will think about how tired she is while she hears
within her wandering thoughts the buzz of Vespas on the wet street. She’ll
long to take a proper shower, gargle with mouthwash, paint her toenails pink.
She’ll tell herself that she’ll move on as soon as the weather
After half an hour or so a sexton will bustle in to prepare
for Mass, and Nora will rouse herself and peek outside. But it will be raining
still, raining as though it would always be raining. The Gypsy will still be
sitting on the step, and Nora, with no place else to go, will return inside the
In an effort to prove that she is there for a reason,
she’ll find the one work of art with its own spotlight. Nora will adjust
the light to full illumination. She’ll think about where she might go
next. She’ll remember that she’d smoked the last of the bad hashish
given to her by her boyfriend before they’d separated last month in
Barcelona. She won’t have eaten since early morning. She’ll want to
go home, though not home to the empty house in Providence lent to her by her
father, an anthropologist, who by then will be doing fieldwork somewhere in
Indonesia. He’d thought he was doing her a favor, loaning her his house.
But she’d prefer to be invited to someone else’s house and live as a
She won’t trust herself to decide on a next move and so
will only go on standing there and staring at the painting in front of her. Her
stupidity will seem laughable. That’s why the Christ child and his little
friend are laughing. They are laughing at this stupid, privileged girl who has
come from America to do nothing. They are laughing at her uselessness. They are
laughing because they are not less than they would ever want to be. They are
laughing in delight at the plan that puts them at the center of the center of
With the reproduction in front of me, I count nine figures
in all: two cherubs emerging from the shadows in the upper corners, the Madonna
seated between them, Joseph at her lower right, the Christ child propped on
Joseph’s lap and leaning toward the center of the painting above the young
Baptist, who sits on a lower step flanked by three saints. The general tones are
soft, the dominant color a silky red. Though the adult figures are arranged in a
binding circle, the line that zigzags from the Madonna’s head down through
the two children creates a tumbling-blocks effect. This is consistent with other
inventive aspects of the painting—the artist’s “whims,”
as Vasari called them—such as the twisted lateral positioning of the
Baptist, the Apollonian Saint Michael, and the luxurious folds in the robes.
Though the painting draws its basic imagery from sixteenth-century Christian
iconography, Pontormo hasn’t hid the fact that the ingenuity is
On the first day of her future, Nora does what she always does
after basketball practice: she tries to puff rings into the damp air with the
smoke from her cigarette as she walks home along the top of the low stone wall
bordering the cemetery. This has become her ordinary route when she
doesn’t ride her bike, a shortcut to her neighborhood now that she’s
given up her childish superstitions about the dead.
At fifteen years old she considers herself the opposite of
superstitious. She’s actually grown to like the cemetery. She likes the
sweet smell of the leaves and the rude screeching of blue jays. She likes the
emptiness. She likes just ambling along, taking her time. She’s getting
pretty good at blowing smoke rings.
She doesn’t like the stocky, slack-jawed Baggley boy,
elder child in the Baggley family, who spends his afternoons at the cemetery
pond hunting for frogs. He is such a total creep. He lives in the house across
from the house where Nora lives with her mother, and at night he walks along the
street and shines his flashlight into mailboxes. He hardly ever bothers to go to
school. Nora doesn’t know anything about his parents. He has a younger
brother in eighth grade who might turn out to be kind of cute in a year or two,
though he doesn’t have much to do with anyone and hangs out at home on
The elder Baggley boy is at the pond today, as usual, and as
usual Nora tries to hurry away before he sees her. She jumps off the wall into
the opposite meadow separating the cemetery from the patch of woods backing up
onto Wakeman Street. She would be safely out of sight if the boy were still at
the pond. But it’s her bad luck that this time he is already climbing up
the slope after her, shaking his head like a horse trying to loosen the reins.
He is carrying a baseball bat. She keeps walking through the wet grass. He runs
to catch up. When he’s close enough for Nora to hear him panting, she sees
that the baseball bat is plastic—a Wiffle-ball bat. He waves at her with
his free hand. Nora says “hi” because that’s what you’re
supposed to do—you say “hi” in a friendly way so as not to
upset him, you ask, “What’s up?” and then you say,
“Sorry gotta go,” and take off. She takes off. He tries to scramble
over the wall after her but his foot gets caught in a crevice, and he’s
stuck. He calls, “Hey! Hey! Help me! Nora!”
She stops. In retrospect, she’ll consider this her first
mistake, the one beginning the series of mistakes she’ll make in the
coming years. She shouldn’t have stopped. A young girl alone in a cemetery
shouldn’t stop to help a creep. But she’d never heard him use her
name before. She wouldn’t have thought he was capable of remembering her
name. She goes back to help him because she figures this would keep him from
He balances on his right knee, his left foot submerged in the
wall. She tugs at the corner of a flat-topped rock but can’t budge it. She
pulls hard at his ankle, trying to pop it from the crevice. The Baggley boy
gives her his creepy Baggley-boy look, a stalking look full of infinite
patience. Only after he wiggles his foot free does she realize that he’d
planted his foot between the stones as a trick. He hadn’t needed her help
She takes off again, happy to be escaping. But she
hasn’t gotten far when she starts to wonder if she should leave in this
fashion. She feels a need to prove that she is not easily fooled. She
stops—her second mistake—but only for a couple of seconds. The creep
is running through the wet grass in an attempt to catch up with her. She wonders
whether she should wait for him or not. Not. She continues to run until between
one stride and the next she feels a whack of pain on the back of her
head—a rock, she thinks at first, or a bottle, she thinks next,
or—her third thought—a Wiffle-ball bat. She spins to face him. He
just stands there swiping his bat through the grass. His hands, she notices, are
weirdly small for his long arms. His lips are a grayish pink. He is laughing,
the puny creep. A gargling sound comes from deep in his throat.
He had fun hitting her with his bat. He wants to hit her
again, but first he loops his wiry arm around her neck and hugs her, squeezing
as hard as he can to convey his gratitude for her compliance—and more, to
show that he loves her, oh yes, he really does love her, and he’ll prove
it if Nora would only hold still.
She is surprised by his strength, but for a moment her fury
makes her stronger, and she manages to pull free of his embrace and then whirl
her heavy book bag on its strap in the direction of his face while he stares his
creepy stare. The canvas bag hits him hard in the shoulder. She hears him
yelping as she runs away.
At home she takes a long shower, toasts a couple of frozen
waffles for her dinner, and eats in front of the television. She wants to call
someone and tell what happened, but she’s sure that any admission of
contact with the creep would taint her, and she’d become permanently
creepy to the rest of the world.
She’s asleep on the couch by the time her mother returns
home, though it’s only seven-fifteen. Her mother, who is lucky to have
income from a family trust fund to compensate for her meager alimony, has spent
the day shopping in New York. She wakes Nora to show her the new navy cardigan
she bought at Saks.
Given the formality of the poses, it is surprising how many
diverse actions are represented in the painting. Although five of the figures
are seated or kneeling, each individual is doing something distinct, and each
action, even the action of contemplation, suggests its physical progression, so
that we see these individuals at a precise moment in time—just before they
are about to continue what they’ve started. Even the materials have an
innate liveliness. The robes suggest the intricate work of able hands that have
tucked and folded the cloth carefully into place—an aspect consistent with
Pontormo’s love of gesture. Hands in a painting by Pontormo are busy and
have always been busy, like the hands, I imagine, of the painter himself.
Because she never tells anyone about the Baggley boy,
Nora’s reputation survives, leaving her sufficiently cool a few weeks
later to be invited by two friends to skip lunch and head to the cemetery to
smoke a cigarette but not cool enough to tell her friends that she’d
rather go smoke in the parking lot. On the way they talk about how to cheat on
the state driving test. They talk about diets. They are listing the foods that
make them fart when a girl named Lizzie Marshall comes running across the field
to warn them not to go to the cemetery because some kid had been murdered there
early this morning and now the place is crawling with police.
Nora hadn’t known the boy. He was a sixth grader—a
good sport, someone says at lunch the next day, and someone else agrees: Larry
Groton was the kind of kid who just went along with everything. For the next two
days rumors swirl around the school. Larry Groton had been stabbed in the heart.
Larry Groton had been shot. Larry Groton had been chopped into pieces by one of
the cemetery’s walking dead and the police still hadn’t found his
hands and feet.
Nora doesn’t have to be a genius to guess what happened.
She is not surprised, though she pretends to be, when someone tells her that
Larry Groton had been heading home from school through the cemetery when the
Baggley boy caught him, beat him up for no reason, and strangled him.
The teachers explain it to the students as an accident. There
is no trial. The elder child in the Baggley family simply disappears from his
house on Wakeman Street. Some say he is hiding in the cemetery, feeding on
corpses. Others say he’s been sent to a maximum-security prison. The
teachers say he’s in the psychiatric hospital in Fairfield
Nora is convinced that she could have saved Larry
Groton’s life if she’d told someone about what the Baggley boy had
done to her. Her capacity for stupidity has surprised her in the past, but now
it astounds her. Thanks to her, Larry Groton is dead. Larry Groton. She
can’t stop thinking about him. She no longer trusts herself. She has lived
for fifteen foolish years and doesn’t deserve to live any longer. She
certainly doesn’t deserve to fall in love, and she punishes herself by
going out with a dance-club bouncer, who keeps forgetting his condoms because,
the truth is, he wants to get her pregnant and keep her from going to
Larry Groton Larry Groton Larry Groton. Nora, home after a
night at the club, looks into the bathroom mirror that has steamed up from the
shower and imagines Larry Groton’s ghost staring back through the
I have read that the painting has its aesthetic origins in
the workshop of the great del Sarto, who was called the painter senza
errori—the painter without errors. The legacy of del Sarto’s
perfection produced the Mannerist rebellion of the Florentine Dioscuri and gave
to Pontormo a respect both for the ambitions of naturalistic representation and
the expressiveness of exaggeration. It is a rich conjunction. Idealize an image
and distort it at the same time, and you have something shockingly close to
She doesn’t go to college, but not because the bouncer
gets her pregnant. She doesn’t go to college because her father gives her
his car and his three-bedroom house in Providence. He says she can have the
house all to herself while he’s in Indonesia, on the condition that she
pay the utilities. The Buick, he tells her, is hers for keeps.
She decides to move to Providence in the summer before her
senior year of high school, against her mother’s halfhearted protests. Her
mother has been thinking about putting their Connecticut house up for sale so
she can move into an apartment in Manhattan with her boyfriend, Guss, who has a
great proud mane of white hair and only ever wears sandals, even in winter. He
tells Nora that she is always welcome at his apartment—she can consider
the sofa bed hers.
The bouncer drives Nora to Providence. He drives back the
following day, promising to return in a week. But to her surprise he
doesn’t return, doesn’t even write her, and when they talk on the
phone she can’t tell if he’s chewing food or yawning.
She makes new friends quickly—friends who still live
with their families and go to high school and who treat Nora as an exotic
creature welcome in their group because she lets them use her house for parties.
Nora makes duplicate keys for whoever asks and encourages them to walk right in
whenever they please. She is always glad to have company. Though she
doesn’t want to admit it, she is embarrassed to be living alone, finds the
loneliness more difficult to bear as time goes on, and soon is wishing that
she’d never left her real home in Connecticut.
She puts off enrolling in a local high school and instead
finds a waitressing job that pays well enough. Her tips, though, don’t
come close to covering the utilities bills. She has lost track of her
father’s route in Indonesia, and he is too involved in his work to write.
Her mother has moved in with Guss, and Nora doesn’t want to give the two
of them any indication that she is less than self-sufficient. She has no
grandparents living. She has only her ancient great-aunt in New Jersey, who is
wealthy enough to give money away.
Great-aunt Lucy, who was a concert pianist and once performed
in New York’s Town Hall, generously sends Nora one thousand dollars and
advises her to go see the world. The recklessness of the idea makes it
irresistible. Nora pays the overdue bills, finds some college students to stay
in the house, and buys a one-way plane ticket to Paris. With the money left
over, she purchases a rail pass and a backpack. And almost as an afterthought,
on the Saturday before her Sunday flight she sells her father’s old Buick
to a dealer for an ample eight hundred and fifty dollars. The challenge she sets
herself is to stretch the cash in her pocket into a lifetime of
The title of this painting is Sacra Conversazione.
It depicts a conversation between God, his prophets and saints, and the holy
family. Everyone has a distinct part to play in the complex scheme. But as in
most conversations, many of the people involved aren’t even
When she’s struggling to figure out the value of her
handful of centimes in a café in Dijon or wandering alone through a
museum in Munich or slapping away the groping fingers of a Spaniard on a bus in
Valencia, she often feels her attention punctured by regret. She’s only
been gone for a few weeks, and already she wants to return home. The problem is,
she has no home to speak of anymore—for which she blames herself. She
wishes she’d stayed in Connecticut and pressed her mother to keep the
house. If she’d stayed at home she wouldn’t be wandering in cities
where she doesn’t know enough of the language to ask for simple
Yet her struggle to manage from day to day is lightened by the
theatricality of travel. Homesickness, she tells herself, is part of the fun,
sweetening the intensity of her experiences. She is free to wander wherever she
pleases. After a month in Europe she still has plenty of money to spend on
whatever catches her eye. She is adept at edging her way into groups of students
and will travel with them on the trains from city to city, hostel to hostel,
sharing their meals and parties and gossip. She believes she can return to
America as soon as she is ready to go.
With a Norwegian girl she meets in Paris—an
eighteen-year-old girl graced with snow-white teeth and a stout bosom, the
daughter of a dentist—Nora travels through Germany and Austria into
Hungary. The border is sealed with barbed wire, the station platform full of
soldiers and their guard dogs waiting to board the train. Nora and the Norwegian
pretend to be asleep when two guards enter their compartment, but the guards
wake them with rude nudges and proceed to rummage through their backpacks. Nora
is afraid they’ll confiscate her dollars as contraband, so when they find
her cigarettes she motions them to take the whole box. This is enough to
persuade the guards to leave them alone.
Nora stays in Budapest for less than twenty-four
hours—long enough for the Norwegian girl to fall in love with a Hungarian
waiter she meets in a park. Nora is disappointed to lose the company, but
she’d rather sleep on a train than on a floor in the waiter’s
apartment listening to the oofs and moans of lovers in the dark.
She heads back to Austria on the night train. She is alone
when an American enters the compartment. He is a student from Dartmouth, an
eager, blond rugby player named Trevor. They are both relieved to share a
language, and after a short hour of easy conversation Nora is already suggesting
that they travel together for a while.
In Vienna they share a hotel room with twin beds. The first
night they sleep separately. The second night they move tentatively into each
other’s arms only after they’ve turned out the light. They linger in
the mornings over a breakfast of bread and sliced meats and coffee topped with
mounds of sweet cream. After three days they head south.
They are in Switzerland when Nora learns that her great-aunt
has had a stroke. Nora’s mother gives her the news over the crackling
connection of the call Nora makes from a phone center in Lugano.
But Nora says in protest that she’d just bought her
great-aunt a present, as though this were reason enough to undo reality.
“I bought it five minutes ago,” she lies. She’d bought it
yesterday in Bern. “A music box. A little chalet-thing with pebbles glued
to the roof and window boxes with tiny velvet flowers. You open the roof to
start the music.”
“The prognosis isn’t good,” her mother
explains. Even with the poor connection Nora can tell that her stoical mother is
already used to the idea that her aunt will be dead soon. Nora is silent, unable
to come up with words of sympathy because what she secretly wants is to ask
permission to come home. But her mother doesn’t sense the meaning of her
silence and instead urges her to go on with her travels because that’s
what Lucy would have wanted.
Nora says that she is on her way to Budapest with a Norwegian
girl and has to hurry to catch the train. She promises to call again soon. After
she hangs up she falls sobbing into Trevor’s arms, weeping at the loss not
just of her elderly aunt, who sent Nora on this adventure, but of the last link
to her family’s past. Trevor’s kisses on her forehead are more
comforting than he could ever know. She dries her eyes with her shirt sleeve and
hooks her arm around his, hoping he can sense her gratitude.
Trevor suggests lunch. Trevor loves to eat. Trevor has a
little pot of a belly now, the kind that foretells a big pot spilling over a
tight-cinched belt in middle age. Trevor loves to sample regional specialties,
which in Lugano is milk-fed horsemeat following a primo of wide flat noodles in
Nora watches Trevor eat. Afterward they rent a paddleboat and
paddle far from shore and make out, nibbling at each other’s tongues as
they bob over the wakes crisscrossing the lake, their kisses gentled by their
understanding that they won’t speak about the future.
Later that day Trevor, who is using his father’s credit
card, pays for a bus ride farther north to the little village of Aqua, where
after hiking up to the snow line and drinking the clear water spilling from
beneath the shelf of ice they treat themselves to a night of frolic in a tidy
little room above a modest restaurant.
The next day the St. Gotthard Tunnel is closed because of a
snowstorm. Trevor and Nora take the train back to Paris, where it is raining.
They split the cost of pricey accommodations in the Marais. That evening, Nora
counts her money and is astonished to find that she has just short of one
hundred and fifty dollars left. She stiffens with suspicion and glares at
Trevor, who is lying in bed reading a comic book, but when he looks up at her
under the pressure of her stare his innocence is plain and any motive for theft
clearly illogical. Trevor doesn’t need Nora’s money. Nora needs
Nora’s money, and she’s been spending it carelessly over the past
weeks, leaving herself less than the cost of a plane ticket home.
Trevor’s offer to pay for meals arouses scant protest
from Nora, since Trevor is the one with the credit card. With his help, she can
keep moving. The next day they go to Bilbao, the next day to Madrid.
“Where are we?” Trevor asks when they are eating a lunch of sausage
and wine on a park bench. “I mean, what city?”
Nora telephones her mother collect at Guss’s apartment
whenever she can. During the second week of December she learns that her
great-aunt has died. Her mother—always forward-looking, always full of
plans—will keep the urn with the ashes, and they will wait for
Nora’s return to have the memorial service.
After a week in Barcelona, Nora accepts Trevor’s offer
to take her by ferry to Majorca. They celebrate Christmas Day on a deserted
beach on the edge of Palma with a bottle of wine, sheep’s cheese, and the
remains of a day-old loaf of bread. The wind is sharp, the sky overcast, the
ships in the harbor gray and lifeless. While Nora wades in the surf Trevor goes
off to look for a café where they can get a decent meal.
They celebrate New Year’s with other American students
at a club in Marseille, Carnivale in February in Venice. They sleep in youth
hostels and cheap pensiones, on park benches and beaches. As soon as she leaves
a city behind Nora loses the specificity of her memories, so not only does she
have trouble reading maps to find her way through the city where she is, she
can’t keep straight where she’s been and what she’s
In March, back in Barcelona, Trevor confesses that the last
time he called home his father objected to “the girlfriend” and her
expenses. Nora, who by then has less than ninety dollars left, is furious, for
as she sees it she’s let Trevor pay for her meals and tickets and anything
else only when he insisted. But she keeps her voice low, and as they finish
their paella they work through their argument toward the quiet agreement to go
in separate directions.
Nora adds easygoing-Trevor-from-Dartmouth to her list of
regrets. She is sorry she ever befriended him, sorrier to lose him. She takes
the train back into France, while he heads toward Portugal.
In a compartment by herself, Nora props her backpack in the
seat next to her and fiddles with her music box, opening and closing the lid,
stopping and starting and stopping the whir of its tinkling melody while she
imagines her great-aunt’s cold fingers reaching through the darkness,
tapping her arm to hush her.
The greatness of any painting is measured by its ability to
keep surprising us, revealing something new every time we go back to look at it.
The first time I saw Sacra Conversazione, I admired the powerful
representation of emotion. When I saw it again many years later, I noticed how
the color precisely defines the divine source of light outside the
I wonder what I’d see now if I were standing in front
of this painting looking at the textures and details that don’t show up in
the reproduction, smelling the residue of incense in the musty air, hearing the
scooters buzzing in the street. But I am nowhere near Florence. I am sitting at
my desk in my attic office in upstate New York. I am looking at this page. Or I
am looking at a reproduction of a painting in a book. Or I am looking out the
window at the shadows of branches dancing with the breeze on the brick wall of
my neighbor’s house. It is the fifteenth of September, and the sky has
been empty for days.
On a warm spring afternoon in April, six months after she left
home, Nora is alone, stranded in Rome during a national strike. The rail workers
are on strike. The tram and bus drivers are on strike. The postal workers, the
museum guards, the street cleaners, even Nora in her own way—everyone is
She figures she can sleep on the floor of the train station if
she can’t find anything better. She’s done it before—once in
Nice, once in Brussels. She’s been spending next to nothing these past
weeks and still has thirty-four dollars in her backpack, along with a mix of
foreign currency in change. She is surprised by how little she needs day to day.
She wants to test herself to see if she can live on even less.
She is sitting on the steps of the fountain in front of the
Pantheon when the piazza fills with a parade of bicyclists. There are young
people, old people, children, babies in baskets, unicyclists, and even a blind
man pedaling on the backseat of a tandem. Though the scene should be boisterous
the mood is somber, the wheels creaking slowly over the paving stones, the
cyclists singing in subdued voices. They are all singing—singing forward
through their song and circling round to a simple chorus of Ciao, bella,
ciao, bella, ciao ciao ciao!...circling like some of the cyclists circle
around the fountain, drawing the people idling there, Nora included, to their
The two young women beside Nora start singing with the
cyclists. A waiter clearing a table stops and sings. A mother clutches her two
children by their hands and sings. The stooped beggar woman who’d been
holding a cup with a trembling hand lifts herself up, floats her cane above the
stones, and moves her lips to mouth the words: Ciao, bella, ciao, bella, ciao
The parade straightens, and the cyclists ride on toward Piazza
Navona, their song lingering in the air behind them.
Nora feels cheered by the song, though she doesn’t
understand its meaning. She is used to not understanding what she hears around
She doesn’t even know whether the cyclists are
celebrating or protesting.
O bella, ciao, bella, ciao, bella, ciao ciao
Or whether the song is about saying hello or
Partigiano, portarmi via, e mi sento rumorir.
The singing fades back into the clamor of the piazza. Nora
watches the beggar resume her stooped, plaintive appeal. She watches children
chasing each other. After a few minutes she decides it’s time to move on,
thinking that she might try to catch up with the bicycle parade. But when she
reaches for her backpack it isn’t there on the steps where she’d
left it. It isn’t on the other side of the fountain or even in the arms of
a boy running from the scene. It is nowhere. Or it is somewhere and Nora is
nowhere—without her money, her address book, fresh underwear, an extra
sweater and jeans, a sleeping bag, a music box, a rail pass.
What can she do now? She’d be wasting her time if she
went to the police to file a report. And she doesn’t want to ask for help
at the embassy. She hasn’t had a proper shower in days. How would she
explain letting herself sink to this state of carelessness?
She does the thing that comes easiest: she wanders. Around the
center of Rome, through the ghetto, across Piazza Venezia, around the tip of the
Circus Maximus, up the lush, quiet streets of the Aventino, she wanders, heading
uphill by instinct.
The park beside Santa Sabina is empty except for a few mangy,
watchful cats and an old man who is playing simple scales on the
flute—trilling up the scale, trilling down. Nora sits on the grass with
her back against an orange tree. Soon the sun will set. Already the sky is
crisscrossed by pinkish wisps. It is pleasant here with the music of the flute
and the perfume of oranges in the air. Although she’s lost everything but
the few coins in her pocket, the parade she’d watched has revived her
sense that she is living through an adventure that can only turn out all right.
But she’s too skittish, or reality is too dangerous, and
when some rough-looking boys enter the park and light up a joint, Nora decides
that it would be best to leave. On her way through the gate she meets a
round-faced little man with a mop of black hair combed to one side of his face.
He stops her and asks in thickly accented English for a cigarette. She explains
that she finished her pack this morning and begins to move past. He stands in
front of her. She tenses in preparation for the trouble she expects. But instead
of touching her he simply sucks in his cheeks with a deep breath as though to
blow up the balloon of his face and makes his eyelids contract until his eyes
are fat wide white-ringed bulbs bulging outside their sockets.
That’s it. Nora has had enough of the world’s
craziness, more than her fair share, thank you. She’s glad now that she
had no cigarettes. What a fix she’d have been in if she’d offered to
share a smoke with this clown.
What now, Nora? The truth is, her last gasp of enthusiasm is
behind her, and she’s ready to admit that she’d rather be three
years younger and sitting in the dark of a movie theater in a Connecticut suburb
than in an orange grove overlooking the city of Rome. She’d rather be not
quite fifteen years old and still fairly hopeful. She’d rather be walking
home from basketball practice, but this time she’d decide to go around the
cemetery instead of through it.
When what you hear is the laughter of mockery behind you, the
only thing you can do is go away. Nora goes away into the darkening twilight.
Somewhere a nightingale is singing. Somewhere church bells are ringing.
Somewhere families are gathering after a day of work and school, sitting down to
television, sitting down to supper.
The sycamores and cypress. The smoky blue of the sky above
Rome on a spring night. The miracle of civilization surviving its history. The
grassy bowl of the Circus Maximus. The dirty white stone of the Campidoglio
stairs. The way a girl tips with her Vespa as she buzzes round a corner. The
raucous, spinning circles of Fiats and taxis, everyone going round and round the
circle of the piazza, everyone always going round and round whatever stands at
the center, whether it be a monument, a fountain, a building, a child.
Nora could just as easily turn left; she turns right. She
could go around the piazza; instead she follows the maze of crosswalks. She
could go anywhere, do anything, and for this reason can only wander deeper into
She passes a drowsy little girl sitting on the sidewalk with a
kitten on a leash and an accordion on her lap. She passes a German tour group
gathered around a juggler, who is setting up his stage. Over there, beneath the
sycamore, a saint receives the stigmata. Over there, on the sidewalk, a hermit
does penance. On the wall, an allegory of what? A portrait of whom? A crowd is
gathering for a feast of the gods. The Sabines are being raped, manna is falling
from the clouds, the wind is picking up, and there is a smell of rain in the
air. Ciao, bella, ciao, bella, ciao ciao ciao.
She stops at the first hotel she sees, a hovel not far from
the train station. The man behind the desk looks her over from the filthy frizz
of her braids to her muddy boots and answers her inquiry with a single word:
completo. The same is true at the next hotel. She heads down the Corso.
When she passes a small but elegant hotel, the Hotel Ricci on the corner of Via
Piemonte, she hesitates, and then keeps walking down the block. But when she
feels the first raindrops she turns around, heads back to the Hotel Ricci, and
pushes open the heavy glass door while a uniformed doorman helps a woman into a
What could she possibly want from the concierge? He stands
behind a high wooden counter and lowers his glasses, propping them on the tip of
his nose, to stare at her. He is almost bald, but he has grown what remains of
his brown hair long enough to tie it back in a ponytail. He looks to Nora like
he has stepped from the eighteenth century.
He is half Dutch, it turns out. She explains her situation in
English and asks if she can sleep on the floor somewhere, in the basement, on
the roof. He smiles at her—or is he leering? He says he will help her; he
directs her to come back at midnight.
OK. Midnight. She’ll walk into this lobby at midnight
and offer herself to this man in return for a bed to sleep in. Sure. Other girls
do it all the time.
She whirls around, offended, and marches through the door that
this time is held open for her by the grinning doorman.
It is raining, though not hard. Nora tries to reconsider her
predicament. How can she stretch what she has left until the end of time? She
would call her father in Indonesia if she had a number for him, but she
won’t call her mother at Guss’s. She doesn’t want to admit to
her mother that she needs help, and she certainly doesn’t want Guss to
know the trouble she’s gotten herself into. Though he’s never
breathed a word of criticism, she can just tell that he’s the kind of
person who would treat her forever after with the condescension of someone who
knew long ago that she’d never amount to anything.
She takes shelter under an awning of a closed store on the Via
Ludovisi and watches the traffic. Every other car is a taxi transporting
stranded tourists. Water sprays from the windshields, splashes up from the
The question she asks herself is, Will I, Nora Owen, amount to
But this is Europe, Nora, and you’re just visiting, and
there are people who can help.
Yeah, and everyone she asks for help will say, “Come
back at midnight.” Everyone wants something. Everyone has a life to live.
She spends seven hundred lire on a tepid caffè. She
stands at the bar’s plate-glass window with her empty cup for an hour or
more watching couples huddled under umbrellas walking past. Inevitably, the
woman stumbles on her high heels, one foot twists under her, but she is able to
steady herself with the help of her escort and go clackety-clacking
The barista watches a soccer game on television. Other
customers come in, down a cold drink or a caffè, and rush out. Nora is
the only one in the world with nothing to do. She glances at her watch. With an
unconvincing gasp of surprise at the late hour she hurries out the
The rain has stopped, though the wind is sharp and damp. She
enters an all-night pharmacy and bides time browsing until the glare of the
pharmacist becomes unbearable.
She is an innocent American girl on a European tour,
she’s cold and exhausted, and she’s not to be blamed if at midnight
she makes her way back to the Hotel Ricci and goes in to find the man
she’d spoken with earlier sitting on a chair in the lobby like a king on a
ziggurat, waiting for her.
There’s a cot in the hotel dining room, the cot this
man, who introduces himself as Frederic, usually sleeps on during his shift.
Nora can have the cot. Frederic will sleep in a chair.
He’s leering again, obviously plotting how he’ll
use his strength and twenty years’ superiority to do whatever he wants to
do to her tonight. His fingernails are long for a man’s, filed into smooth
arcs, the whites tinged with yellow. He walks around the lobby in his brown
socks. But he is eager to help Nora, and she’s too tired to go through the
dance of polite refusal. He has offered her a place to sleep. She has accepted.
She doesn’t have the stamina to be afraid. When he leaves the room she
strips to her T-shirt and underwear and collapses on the cot, drawing the
starched sheets and heavy wool blanket over her.
She wakes often during the night—every time the
hotel’s front bell is rung by a guest wanting entry. As she drifts back to
sleep she wonders when Frederic will come for her, when he’ll ask for
payment. At one point she is vaguely aware of him standing in the doorway
The Baggley boy passes through her dreams, along with Larry
Groton, Guss, Trevor, her mother, her great-aunt, her father, all of them
ringing the bell to bring Frederic to the door.
And then, miraculously, it is morning, and Frederic is urging
her to wake, bending over her with a smile that in daylight has lost its quality
of greedy insinuation and is simply expressive of his curiosity and kindness. He
must set the tables for breakfast; Nora offers to help. They fold napkins,
arrange bread and pastry in baskets, and when they have finished they sit down
together to big milky cups of coffee and a plate of cornetti. When his
shift is over at nine, he will take Nora to the American embassy a few blocks
away. She doesn’t bother to point out that they’ll take one look at
her and decide to ship her home.
What is she doing in Italy? he wants to know. How long will
she stay? Where has she been? She tells him that she has come to work on a
photography project for school, but her camera and film were stolen along with
her backpack. She spins the lie easily, for no other reason than to try to prove
to him that she hasn’t been lazy.
When two waiters arrive, Nora retreats into the bathroom and
leaves Frederic to his work. She washes her hair in the sink with the foam of
hand soap, shakes a cracked tooth from her comb after pulling it through a
tangle. She pauses to study herself in the mirror, her reflection familiar and
foreign and inadequate like an old photograph of herself—the narrow nose,
chapped lips, brown eyes, and heavy brows all sharing the label of her
Back in the lobby she waits for Frederic to return so she can
tell him that she doesn’t want to go to the embassy. She tries to concoct
a new lie in order to get away, though what she’d really like is to stay
here for a week at least and sleep on Frederic’s cot, eat a hotel
breakfast, wash up at the sink in the ladies’ room.
The desk phone rings. Frederic doesn’t arrive to answer
it, and there is no doorman at this hour. The ringing stops for a few seconds
and then begins again. Nora feels herself drawn to her feet by the
responsibility. She wants to answer the phone herself and almost does, but it
stops again. She waits for Frederic. He has left a newspaper open on the counter
and his jacket hanging on a coat hook. He has left a pack of cigarettes in one
pocket, his eyeglass case in another pocket, his wallet in the inside pocket of
She lifts a few cigarettes for herself and then reaches for
his wallet, struggling against the impulse to hesitate. She pries open the
billfold, takes out a lira note, another note, another. She has no idea how much
she is stealing. She just takes the paper money from the wallet, tucks the
jacket closed again, and bolts. The glass door eases back on its hinges behind
her, closing with an accusing groan as she hurries up the sidewalk.
Through the centuries critics have praised and criticized
Pontormo for his unnatural colors and light and contorted forms. Some blame him
for failing to further the Humanist idealism of the Italian Renaissance; others
praise him for his heterodoxy and modernity. His reputation has survived for
five hundred years under the weight of this ambivalence.
Sacra Conversazione is full of Pontormo’s
characteristic disruptions. It is a busy, unsettling painting in some aspects.
But I marvel at the way serenity dominates. Our gaze will swirl and turn with
the lines and bounce from one expression of private emotion to the other, but
the composition draws us back to the center, to the simple, direct expression of
As I study this painting, I find myself wondering about the
conditions that are necessary for an artist to succeed in recording his vision.
Was it important for Pontormo to have quiet in his workshop? Did the squeak of a
pump handle out in the courtyard annoy him? Did an argument with a patron leave
him unable to work for weeks? Was it necessary for Pontormo to believe in the
premise of this conversation between God and his prophets—that
Christ’s crucifixion would save a small portion of mankind?
Whatever external conditions were necessary for the
creation of this painting, Pontormo must have found a way to keep the little
boys who served as his models from growing restless. Maybe he fed them chocolate
at frequent intervals. Maybe he promised them a turn with his brushes and
paints. Somehow, he managed to convince two boisterous young children that there
was nothing better, nothing worthier, nothing more fun than to sit for an artist
The thief knows that the thief’s remorse is worthless,
as long as the thief takes no reparative action. The thief knows that it is
better to be free than in prison. The thief is three hundred thousand lire
richer, and that’s plenty to keep her going for weeks.
The strike is over, and the thief takes a train north toward
Milan. She stops off in Florence because she has never been to Florence. She
wanders around for a while—visits the Duomo, dodges taxis in Piazza della
Repubblica, explores the San Lorenzo market. She discovers that stolen money
isn’t easy to spend. She can’t find anything to buy that is worth
the value of her guilt.
After a few hours the rain begins again. The thief is wet. The
thief is weary. The thief takes refuge inside the closest church, which happens
to be San Michele Visdomini.
She rests there, revives, and because it is still raining she
wanders around inside the church until she comes to Pontormo’s painting.
She fiddles with the light switch of the nearby lamp and finally manages to
illuminate the canvas.
Here is happiness. What is happiness? Happiness is
fearlessness. What is happiness? The thief can hardly remember. But she can
imagine what she would have felt if someone had told her a few years ago that
this is what she’d come to: she, Nora Owen, a thief who steals money from
good men. She wouldn’t have believed it. This is Nora Owen at the age of
seventeen? Fat chance!
The truth is the truth. Nora has no reason to believe that
she’ll ever be other than what she is. Based on what she has learned about
herself, she can only imagine a future that is a continuation of the present. It
will always be raining. She will always be a thief. The boys in the world of the
painting will always be laughing.
But look again, Nora. It’s not all rosy joy. The old
man, the prophet in the lower corner—he knows different. He sees the end
of the world. Old John the Evangelist. Look at him. And look, too, at Joseph
sitting just above him. They’re both staring in horror in the direction of
the light—the same light that is making happiness a radiant shade of red.
These two old men are clearly horrified by the certainty that it’s going
to be as bad as all that. Because of what is, what will be. This is what games
teach us: the error of our ways, one wrong move leading to another and another
until we’re trapped.
Some day the future will snap closed upon the past. But until
then, the present is the present: April, 1981. It is still raining, and the
thief is still a thief. She is tired. She is hungry and alone and foolish. If
she moves she risks making another irreversible mistake. If she stays she risks
losing the chance for reparation.
There’s no risk when you live inside a painting, even if
the end of the world is imminent. If you live outside, though, you can’t
afford to stay in one place. But where do you go if you are a good-for-nothing
thief? You proceed in an arbitrary direction, not just away from where
you’ve been but toward whatever destination you happen to
As she leaves the church her right hand brushes against cold
marble. Her left hand is thrust in her jacket pocket. On her way down the steps
she bends beside the Gypsy and with a clumsy motion she drops the stolen lire in
the box. She hurries on through the rain. Behind her, the woman nods in a
routine fashion, as if she’d received exactly what she expected to
receive—no more and no less.