By: John Michael Flynn
Mark Twain was not one of the authors I’d read in high school. Nor was Kurt Vonnegut. As the product of a small-town public-school system, I discovered both of them and all similarly sustaining literary interests much later. However, according to the Let’s Go guidebook, which served as a bible during my days knocking around alone in Europe, Mr. Twain had cherished Lucerne, Switzerland.
I saw why. Surrounded by the dewy and sometimes opalescent greens of hemlocks, firs, cedars and pines, as well as silvery, mist-haunted snow-capped peaks, the city graced the shores of a lake that on clear afternoons reflected the alpine blue of the sky. It was an aged timber-framed and leaded glass city without skyscrapers and freeways, and life there moved at a snail’s pace, more of a village with cobbled lanes, push carts, fruit vendors and church steeples. After a few blocks of window-shopping, it became clear that it was also an expensive city, priced for tourists, but Janet, my companion, told me not to worry; she’d cover our expenses.
I insisted first that we visit a post office, so I could mail my parents a postcard. “Other than you,” I explained, “nobody anywhere knows I’m here.”
That was thirty-seven years ago. I was nineteen. Janet was around twenty-five. Consider our situation today. My phone tracks me and even provides answers to my text messages. It recommends movies, shops and products I might like. Cameras in public places record every move I make. It was much easier, once upon a time, to create an illusion of sublime anonymity.
Janet treated me to dinner by candlelight. I answered her questions over fondue and red wine. We rambled on, glassy-eyed, playful. I described, in detail, the way I’d been teased in high school, my love for cinema, my philosophy that life was one long movie, how I’d shot and developed photos with my Dad, applications to colleges I’d sent out and how I hoped responses would be waiting once I returned to the States. There were scholarships to earn, but for the time being, I’d had it with school. I craved travel. A dream, one had to make it come true.
“Where do you plan on going?” she asked.
“No plan. I’m just going with the vibe until my money runs out.”
“What if you get back to America and no school has accepted you?”
“My grades are pretty good. It’s tuition, that’s the determining factor, I guess.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
I shrugged. Who was this woman? We’d met while drunk in Amsterdam. It seemed a long time ago. Now we were drunk together again. Same actors, different set—life as movie.
In the morning, we rose early and walked the city, feeling as if we had it to ourselves. We kept a respectful distance, never walking arm in arm as if a couple but petting each other now and then as we spoke. We took our time, strolling in awe of the mountain peaks, the pure air, the air-brushed blue in the lake mirrored under a cloudless sky. We marveled at displays in shop windows. We took photographs and ate bread and cheese on a park bench, sampled wines in pricey bars, polite to each other but flirting now and then, touching, but never crossing unspoken lines. We filled in gaps in our respective histories, wanting to know more about each other. Our hotel, a four-star refuge for the well-heeled, made me a little uncomfortable. I thought it so much more than I deserved or needed and didn’t like that Janet was paying, but I didn’t complain. She’d insisted on it. We slept in separate rooms.
Lingering in various shops where I felt poor and under-dressed, I watched Janet buy small gifts for people back home. I disliked shopping. Janet, on the other hand, disliked the cold and whined about it each time the wind kicked up. We strolled under bare trees in parks and along ancient cobblestone byways. City dwellers paid us no mind, and I assumed they’d seen our ilk far too many times. I felt as if Lucerne, with all of its romantic overtones, wasn’t real but an extended fabrication, a play of light and emotion.
At times during our various strolls, I didn’t feel like talking and was glad Janet tended to seem fond of hearing her own voice. She spoke about her Philadelphia childhood, her rich family, her brothers, one a surgeon, the other a history professor at Bucknell, both of them older. She talked about how she wished she’d had a sister growing up, how she resented being the baby in the family, and her status as the accident that happened a little late, evidenced by the ten-year gap between her youngest brother’s birthday and her own. What she valued more than anything was her independence. I joked that this made sense given she was from Philadelphia. She had her parent’s support, for what it was worth. She described them as tired, willing to keep their hands off. Growing up, money had never been a big issue.
I felt embarrassed to admit I’d never known anyone who hadn’t needed to scrimp for every dime. I confessed that I hoped she wouldn’t think less of me for being so middle-class. She laughed at my confession.
“I’ll look after you,” she said. “We must have met for a reason.”
I’d never thought of it that way. Wasn’t it possible just to be lucky? Why must there always be reasons for life’s accidents? Why must God always have a plan? To this day, I see no proof, other than in the minds of insecure humans, that there is a Plan Us. A plan, after all, reduces our need to reason. Cogito ergo sum. Reason makes us human. The unplanned event forces us to discover something often better than we’d imagined. Orson Welles called them divine accidents.
We disagreed when discussing politics. She thought Reagan and the emerging brand of Republicanism necessary for the US in the wake of a dour mood after losing the war in Vietnam. She labeled me uninformed, too cynical for my age. Looking back, she was correct about me, but in my thoughtless defensiveness, I believed she sounded too comfortable cutting me down to my plebian status. I didn’t like being labeled, nobody does, but I could endure this, too, and didn’t argue. After all—though my awareness of such a habit was unknown to me at that time—I used handy labels to reduce nearly everything and everyone I met.
“You’re old before your time and incredibly negative,” she said. “You should lighten up and enjoy life. There’s nothing wrong with an optimistic president.”
“But I liked Jimmy Carter.”
“Sure. You were in high school. You probably liked his brother, too.”
“Every man has a dark side.”
“Oh please, John. You’re hardly a man yet. You’re not quoting from one of your movies, are you?”
I decided that even if I disagreed with her, I’d go along. She was vibrant, and she was paying. I had to admit, flush with wine, I wanted to sleep with her. Smart, sophisticated, well-informed, she showed no quibbles about flashing her gold Amex card. It felt to me like more than a workable arrangement. It felt like I’d hit the lottery jackpot.
During yet another big fondue dinner together, she asked, “John, what do you want?”
Her brown eyes, often jumpy, roamed but never met my gaze. They accented the auburn glow in her hair, parted down the middle and worn in bangs that bounced in feathery curves that added girlishness to her looks. I thought her cheeky, sly and that she talked more than needed. Maybe it was insecurity. Or loneliness. She looked often like a small bird and brought out a protective instinct in me.
I replied, “I told you. I’m not sure. But I think I want to be a filmmaker.”
“Okay.” She leaned toward me and her eyes glowed in the candlelight on the table. “But deep down, say if you were a filmmaker, then what?”
“I want to make movies that challenge the status quo.”
“Really?” She sounded a note of disbelief. “Well, good for you. We’re opposites, then, because I plan on running the board of a multi-national corporation.”
I wasn’t used to wine, but with each sip I was learning to like it. “You talk international business as if it were on the side of the little guy.”
She tilted her glass toward my nose. “There are no small American companies anymore. Your so-called little guy is a myth that’s quickly disappearing.”
“Yet Reagan supports the little guy.” I looked at her with a smirk of contempt. “You don’t really believe that?”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe. That’s not what business is about. Business is about results. It’s very simple. I’ll tell you a dirty little secret. The future of business is not going to be about America and Europe. It’s going to be about India, Japan and China. The world, all of it, tied together. Everyone in the know sees it coming.”
“Can I politely disagree?”
“By all means. I want you to. It’s one thing I like about you. For someone with a high school education, you have remarkable rhetorical skills. You think for yourself. I respect that.”
“So that’s a compliment?”
“I like that about you, too. Your sense of humor.”
“Comes from my mother. She’s led a hard life. It’s what keeps her going. My father says she’s got life savvy. Both my parents work full-time, all the time. They’re all business.”
Janet, nodding, poured herself more wine. Her face looked vividly limp. She dismissed me with a wave of her hand. “You haven’t studied economics, so how can you pretend to know about business?”
“I don’t. I just live. Let’s talk about something else. Your parents. You said your Dad is a lawyer?”
“My father, yes. My mother’s an actuary.”
At the time, I didn’t know what an actuary did, but I kept the thought under wraps. I knew a look of disappointment deadened my face, but I was an actor, too, able to keep a scene moving in a direction I preferred.
“You know, we don’t have to agree. We come from two different worlds, really.”
“Funny, isn’t it, how you see your native land better when you’re far away from it.”
“Not that far,” she said. “Look around. This place is crawling with Americans. And they didn’t need scholarships to get into college.”
“That’s okay. Just how it is.”
“Really?” She let out a sigh as if moved by my show of fatalism. “You’re right.” She sipped her wine, studied my features. “John, I’ve got a proposition for you.”
Naturally, my imagination ran wild.
“I want to visit Italy.”
“Perhaps we can work something out,” she said.
“You can’t keep paying my way. It wouldn’t be right.”
“What do you suggest?”
“A loan. I pay you back once I’m home.”
“Out of your pocket? That would take too long. What about your credit card? No, don’t tell me. You don’t own one.”
“I don’t. I mean, I could, but my father talked me out of it. He said I should wait until I’m thirty and to never spend money I don’t have.”
“He’s a practical man.”
“He has one credit card. An Amex like yours. He says he likes it because it forces him to pay off his debt each month, if possible. Usually he does.”
“Your father gave you quite a lesson in economics.”
“A stingy Irishman. A few of those around, I guess.”
“Just a few,” she said. “But in all seriousness, maybe you could keep the Italian men off my back. I hear they’re vicious.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“You said your mother’s Italian.” She tipped her wineglass toward my face. “You could be my bodyguard.”
“My parents are American. My grandparents were the immigrants.” I looked around the restaurant. Lit softly with candles on every table, the understated décor suggested a level of comfort and élan I was not familiar with. Talk about divine accidents. “But in exchange for this? Say no more.”
“No, not this.” She sounded peeved. “Don’t go getting ideas. I’ve always wanted to do the backpacker thing and you could help.”
“The backpacker thing?”
“You rough it,” she said. “I’ll budget myself. We’ll travel together.”
I leaned back in my chair and sized her up. Would we sleep together, too, in Italy? What did I have to lose?
“I suppose it helps that I have simple needs,” I told her rather too proudly. “I like it that way. All I ask from myself is a roof and one meal a day. I don’t want you to think that you’d have to pay for me. You know, I’ve been sleeping on trains and in parks. See those soup crackers over there? That’s the kind of stuff I’ve been living on.”
I told her more about my night in a blizzard in Grindelwald, the village where she’d been staying. I’d been trying to find her since she’d given me her address while in Amsterdam. I added details, getting the whole of it off my chest. In the telling, my experience suffered an enormous reduction, sounding less like adventure and more like an embarrassing show of poor planning. Still, Janet appeared interested.
“So, you like the air of risk around me? Is that it?”
“You’ll be my traveling partner and my bodyguard. In exchange, I’ll help pay your way in Italy. You’re different for me. Not city material, but not a hick. I like talking with you.”
“But I know business the way you know movies. Meaning, you don’t.”
“Not true. Try me. Who’s your favorite director?”
“American or foreign?”
She rolled her eyes. “Both.”
“Kurosawa, Japanese. John Huston, American.”
“Never heard of them.”
I knew she was lying. “You’re from Philly, c’mon, high art comes with the territory.”
“High art doesn’t always include movies.”
“Don’t tell that to Fellini.”
“Aren’t you the clever one,” She shared a look as if to suggest I stood a chance of kissing her over the table. “I know the meaning of Pre-Raphaelite and baroque. Bet you don’t.”
“I can’t even say those words.”
“Proves my point. Movies are for the masses, which automatically makes them low-brow.” She paused, sounding drunk. “This is going to be fun. You think I’m just some rich Girl Scout, but you are so wrong. I bet you only speak one language.”
“Took some French in high school.”
“Spanish for me,” she countered. “I’m fluent. I’m curious about everything. And I go out of my way not to be condescending or too conventional. It’s the only way to learn.”
I felt, at last, as if she were enjoying my company. I sat up straight. “So, I told you mine, now you tell me. Who’s your favorite director?”
“It’s Woody Allen. I never expect him to be funny, but he’s such a genius. And he’s not insipid. He’s brilliant. But the least sexy and most neurotic kind of man. I tell you what I don’t understand, at all, is genius. Where it comes from. How it works.”
“You don’t have to defend your questions. Not with me.”
Her eyes bloomed in the candlelight. “I see you like this fondue. I’ll order more.”
“No, Janet, really, I’m full. I’m fine. Really.”
“Then dessert. Something chocolate.”
“Honestly, I feel a little guilty about the money you’re spending.”
“Very Catholic of you, isn’t it?”
I nodded yes.
“Of course. So, the plan is we don’t wake up with hangovers tomorrow and we don’t forget this ever happened. We just go along with each other. And no guilt.”
“No guilt. That’s a good deal.”
“Good. Because I think we’re about to have the time of our lives.” A playful buoyancy had entered her voice. “We can stay in Italy for a couple of weeks. I’ve got an itch to see Spain, too. I want to practice my Spanish. I may need a bodyguard there, as well.”
“How much will all this cost?”
“Don’t you want to join me?”
I studied her a moment before replying. “Tomorrow, you sure you won’t forget we had this conversation? Remember, you’re the one who ditched me in Amsterdam.”
“I was high on hashish.”
“And you’re drunk on wine now.”
“You’re afraid. How sweet. It means you care.”
I tried to hide my simmering enthusiasm. My blizzard hell in Grindelwald was already a distant memory. “I’ll pay you back someday, you’ll see. You won’t regret this.”
She flashed a miffed look that aged her. “Don’t get tedious about money. Let’s just enjoy ourselves. I don’t like traveling alone. You don’t either, even though you pretend that you do.”
I toasted her. “To Italy. To us. Together.”
Raising her wine, she paused a moment, frowning as she put down the glass. “Just remember one thing. I’m taking a chance. We both are. You can’t forget that. And you’ll have to do what I ask of you as long as I’m paying.”
“I will. Promise.”
“And no promises. I never make or trust promises. Neither should you.”
It was the first time a woman had ever said that to me. It was also advice I still live by.