The Washington Post
From acclaimed novelist and literary critic Delbanco comes a poignant tale about love, rebirth, and a second chance at romance.
The Washington Post
- Grand Central Publishing
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Spring and Fall
By Nicholas Delbanco
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
THE M.S. DIANA SET OUT FROM THE PORT OF ROME, her destination
Valetta. Powering south from Civitavecchia, she had stops planned in
Sorrento and, on the coast of Sicily, Naxos, Siracusa and Porto
Empedocle. Built in 1960, she had been newly refitted. The ship had
a Bridge Deck, a Baltic Deck, a Mediterranean Deck, a Caribbean Deck
and, just above the waterline, an Atlantic Deck. In the old days,
under sail, the journey might have taken months; now the trip from
Rome to Malta was scheduled for six days. In the old days, in the
times of war, these waters had been treacherous; now it was late
September, and a pleasure cruise.
The ship's manifest listed fifty-seven cabins and a passenger
capacity of 108, not counting crew; it was 87.4 meters long and 13.2
meters wide. The M.S. Diana's decor had been conceived of in the
Swedish mode; she was remodeled in Gothenburg, with-so the brochure
claimed-stylistic influence from France. Her owner was American, her
flag Liberian, her crew came from Croatia. Their names, it seemed to
Lawrence, made a kind of music; they introduced themselves as Vinko,
Darko, Marko, Ivo, Miho, Vlatka and Andrea. He tried to remember
Three nights before, he had flown from Detroit and in the morning
reached Rome. There hechecked into the Grand Palace Hotel, on the
Via Veneto, and willed himself to rest. Across the street was the
American Embassy, fenced in and heavily guarded; up on the next
corner loomed the Excelsior, and down the way was the Piazza
Barberini, with its Bernini Fountain and cascade of loud cars. He
was sixty-four years old, recovering from angioplasty, and his
doctor had suggested that he take a trip.
"You're fine," he said. "You've done just fine." "I don't
feel"-Lawrence hesitated-"ready, really."
"The risk of stenosis is just about over. It's a statistical
possibility, of course-we should wait a year to be certain-but the
risk is minimal. And I'm not suggesting you go somewhere very far
away. Not, I mean, some third-world country or up the slopes of
"I'm not sure I'm up to it." "Depression," said his doctor, "is a
common side effect. In men our age, in fact, it's damn near
unavoidable. Why don't you take a cruise?"
He knew Tommy Einhorn well. They were neighbors in Ann Arbor, and
they played tennis together, and he thought of Tommy as his friend
as well as doctor; the advice was kindly meant. "I'm not the
cruising type," said Lawrence.
"All that forced gaiety. The Princess Line. Calisthenics up on deck,
the samba by the swimming pool; whatever it is they insist that you
"No one's insisting on anything." Dr. Einhorn leaned back in his
swivel chair and pressed his fingertips together. "It's only a
suggestion. Let me repeat it: your heart's just fine. It's better
now than it has been for years."
"Let's hope so," Lawrence said. "And these new Cypher stents are
just the ticket." "Ticket?"
Einhorn laughed. "The ticket for the ticker, hey. Not bad. I must
SO HE HAD LOOKED FOR and then booked a trip to places it seemed safe
to go, first stipulating that the cruise ship must be small. By
"safe," Lawrence told the travel agent, he meant not so much safety
from the threat of terror as somewhere where the medicine was
adequate and from which, in case of trouble, he could leave. He
signed up for travel insurance. The cruise itself had begun in
Marseilles, with stops in Nice and Monaco, but he elected the
single-week option and flew alone to Rome.
He had not been there in years. The airport, once so brightly new,
seemed faded and shopworn, a little, and the train to the termine
reeked. Years before, he had spent time in Italy, studying
Renaissance architecture, and he ventured out to his old haunts-the
Spanish Steps, the Borghese Gardens, the Campidoglio and back
streets of Trastevere-with a kind of dutiful inclusiveness; to have
been young in the Eternal City and to come there now again as an
aging tourist was bittersweet at best. He felt not so much nostalgic
The traffic had increased. The streets were clogged with Vespas,
buses, taxis, and the air was rank. Lawrence monitored his breathing
and waited for a telltale signal from his chest. It did not come.
The Pantheon was ringed by motorcycles, and the Trevi Fountain-past
which he could remember wandering at night, and where Anita Ekberg
laved herself in La Dolce Vita, gown clinging wetly to her
breasts-was now a photo op. Everywhere were groups of sightseers
and, waving umbrellas or pennants, their guides.
His sleep was fitful, troubled, and the room too hot. He ate by
himself, poorly, expensively, and the waiters addressed him in
English. The elegant Italians and the girls in their scant dresses
paid him no attention; only beggars waited for him, holding out
their hands. The line in front of St. Peter's was so long and
daunting that he did not revisit the cathedral or its chapel but
walked by the Tiber instead.
For two days Lawrence wandered the streets. He tried to recapture
his old rapt excitement, the fascination of the buildings and the
beauty of the hills and the Colosseum and Forum. It did not work.
What he focused on instead were pigeons and the dog scat in the
paving; by the time he transferred to the M.S. Diana he was
ready-more than willing-to escape.
THE PORT OF CIVITAVECCHIA bustled with tankers at anchor. Lined up
by the dock itself were cruise ships in their pastel glory, towering
confections like wedding cakes on water, with names emblazoned on
their bows and smokestacks: Marco Polo, The Star Princess, Island
Queen, The Attica Swan. Last and least of this procession was the
M.S. Diana, and this pleased him; its scale was small, its aspect
self-effacing, and the driver who delivered him extracted his bags
from the trunk of the taxi with something very like pity. "Ecco,
signore. Va bene?"
"Va ben," he said. "Mille grazie," and tipped the driver lavishly as
if to prove a point.
At the gangplank they were waiting. A man in a white uniform
saluted, and a blonde in slacks and sailor's cap said, "Welcome,
welcome aboard! I'm your cruise director." She produced a practiced
smile; then she consulted a passenger list and checked off
Lawrence's name. Inside they collected his passport and gave him a
key to his cabin and, carrying his luggage, conducted him
downstairs. He had a fleeting sense of brightwork, wood, an elevator
in its cage and carpeting and corridors, and then the man who led
him to his cabin turned and, half saluting, said in thickly accented
English, "Haf a pleazant trip!"
In his room he found a set of thermal clothing and, underneath the
portholes, a yellow life preserver. There was a bottle of
complimentary red wine on the cabinet between twin beds and a bowl
of fruit and sheet of paper asking, "Why is a ship called 'she'?"
There was a drawing of a clipper ship and, beneath it, a barbed
anchor; Lawrence read the printed answer:
A ship is called a she because there is always a great deal of
bustle about her; there is usually a gang of man about, she has a
waist and stays; it takes a lot of paint to keep her good looking;
it is not the initial expense that brakes you, it is the upkeep; she
can be all decked out, but it takes an experienced man to handle her
correctly; and without a man at the helm, she is absolutely
She shows her topsides, hides her bottom and when coming into port
always heads for the buoys.
Love her, take good care of her, and she shall take good care of
He unpacked his clothing first. He hung up his jackets and exercise
clothes and stowed the empty suitcase underneath the bed. He
arranged his medications in the bathroom and laid out his sketch pad
and books on the shelf; he liked the cabin's clean enclosure, the
wooden containers for stemware and bottles, the way that the
cabinets locked. After the nightlong bustle of the Via Veneto this
organized silence was welcome, and he lay back in his shirtsleeves
and attempted to take stock.
BEFORE THE TROUBLE with his heart he took good health for granted.
Lawrence watched what he ate and did not smoke and, although he
could have dropped ten pounds and refused a second cocktail, did his
best to stay in shape. He looked, he liked to joke, not a day past
sixty-three. In truth he did seem youthful, and his students and
those colleagues in architecture school who did not know his actual
age would have been surprised by it; he had retained a wide-eyed and
infectious pleasure in the act, the fact of teaching, and he paced
up and down the studio with spring in his long stride. He was more
of a professor now than a practitioner-more engaged, he liked to
say, in the theory than practice of architecture. But the profession
still compelled him, and the New Urbanists still referenced his
early work. He had most of his muscle and much of his hair and was
known, in Ann Arbor, as a bit of a boulevardier; he had three
children and two ex-wives and a series of companions with whom he
sometimes slept. For a long time, however, he had lived alone.
When the symptoms of angina came he at first ignored them, believing
the bright pain in his chest was only acid reflux or, maybe, a
pulled muscle. Lawrence went to spinning class and worked out on the
treadmill three mornings a week, and the shortness of his breath
seemed somehow a function of hard exercise; he had always sweated
easily. Now he woke up drenched in sweat. The strange taste in his
mouth increased- as though he sucked on tin, then brass-and stairs
became a problem; then the band of pain became a vise, extending
from shoulder to shoulder. When he begged off from tennis with Tommy
Einhorn, Tommy asked him, "Why, what's wrong?"
This was the start of July. In the emergency room they asked for his
symptoms and as soon as he described them wheeled Lawrence down to
the cardiac unit, where whitecoated attendants were waiting. They
recorded his pulse and blood pressure and temperature and gave him
oxygen and heparin and a set of EKGs. It was likely, said the
attending cardiologist, he had a blockage in an artery or arteries,
and they would perform an angiogram in order to determine where the
trouble lay. This was routine procedure, nothing to be concerned
about, but he had arrived just in time. An angioplasty or heart
bypass might well be indicated, he was told, for he had unstable
angina and should be hospitalized.
Because they did not wish to operate short-staffed on Independence
Day, Lawrence waited the long holiday weekend, lying aggrieved in
the hospital bed and dealing with visits from residents and interns
and Dr. Einhorn's colleagues. They said that he was lucky, very
lucky, and if one of his organs was slated for trouble, well, let it
be the heart; we can do much less, these days, about the liver or
lungs or the brain. It's a plumbing problem, mostly, and time to fix
the pipes. They said he should be grateful to be alive in the
twenty-first century and living in Ann Arbor, where the medical
facilities were fine.
"You know the first three symptoms of heart trouble?" Tommy Einhorn
"Denial, denial, denial." "Very funny."
"Very almost not funny at all, my friend. This is the riot act I'm
"All right. Okay."
"We're prepared to handle it," said Dr. Einhorn, "if you have an
infarction. But now you're stable and you're being monitored; only
folks in crisis get to go to the theater this weekend."
"You have to be patient. A patient patient," Einhorn said. "Hey, not
bad. I should remember that."
THREE BELLS SOUNDED IN HIS CABIN, and a man's voice boomed from a
speaker by the porthole. The purser introduced himself. "Good
afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard," he said. "On
behalf of the captain and crew of the M.S. Diana we wish everyone a
most delightful trip." Then over the intercom system all passengers
were informed that there would be a mandatory life preserver drill
before they could depart. They were instructed to report to level 4
in fifteen minutes, please. Departure was scheduled for seven
o'clock, and in the morning, from Sorrento, we will travel to Capri.
Lawrence roused himself. Not sorry to have been interrupted in his
meditation on disease-the long wait in the hospital, the procedure
itself, its aftermath-he laced on his sneakers and slipped on a
jacket and found his way up to the deck. The wind was high.
Passengers were milling about and awaiting instructions and laughing
together and huddling in corners to hide from the wind. The man
beside him on the deck was wearing bracelets on his wrist and an
"Cold enough for you?" he asked. The cruise director, smiling,
nodding, said, "Everybody, your attention, please!"
Lawrence was provided with a life preserver and shown how to fasten
it, then told that in the unlikely event of an emergency he should
report to lifeboat station 6. He watched a demonstration of the
whistle and inflatable flotation device; he was instructed what to
carry with him from the cabin and what to leave behind. His
concentration flagged, however, the way it drifted in an airplane
when flight attendants enact their preflight pantomime; heart
trouble happens to others, he could remember thinking, and most of
the time he'd felt fine.
Emergencies happen to others, he could remember thinking, and his
own was in the past. The document they sent him home with began with
the assertion: "Successful PCI of culprit LAD/D1 Lesion ..."
"You've had," the cardiologist declared, "your last drink of
buttermilk and your final piece of steak."
"You were lucky," Dr. Einhorn chimed in. "The left anterior
descending was ninety percent occluded. But it's just like real
estate-what counts is location, location. And yours was in the spot
they call the widow-maker."
"I'm not married," Lawrence said. "You were lucky," his neighbor
repeated. "No joke. We caught it just in time."
HIS SONS LIVED IN PHOENIX AND VAIL. Ten years before, their mother
had remarried-a professor in the Political Science Department-but
Janet stayed, it seemed to him, unbending, unforgiving. Lawrence
tried to let bygones be bygones, to suggest that their marriage was
far in the past and they should-for the sake of the children-be
friends. The wound of his old infidelities stayed fresh with her
nevertheless; if they met at a concert or the farmers' market Janet
turned away and gave him, pointedly, her back. When John or Andrew
brought their wives and children to town they apportioned the length
of their visits and, to keep from playing favorites or offending
either parent, stayed in the Campus Inn.
His daughter by his first wife was living in Chicago. As though
there had been some contagion, some gene that spawned failed
marriages, his daughter too had been divorced and now lived alone.
In part as a result of this, Catherine was very helpful during his
time in the hospital and, afterward, at home. His sons had flown to
see him, and remained in touch by e-mail or the telephone, but she
bore the brunt of it-the grocery shopping, the first week of
driving, the details of Lawrence's medical leave. It was as though
they shared again the rhythms of domestic life, and he enjoyed the
way they did the crossword puzzle together, the way she matched her
stride to his during their afternoon walks.
When Catherine returned to Chicago he found himself regretting it,
for he had grown accustomed to her presence by his side. Therefore
he invited her to join him for the trip. "You've been wonderful,"
said Lawrence; he wanted to show her how grateful he was and would
enjoy the company. But she had used up her vacation in July and
could not take another week away from work.
"My treat. I'll pay for it," he repeated. "Daddy, that isn't the
"The point is," he cajoled her, "your father misses you. And you
haven't ever been to see-the cruise is billed as-the 'Treasures of
the Western Mediterranean.' Don't you think you need to see them?
The Isle of Capri? The temples of Agrigento? Malta?"
"It's called my life, remember? And I need to get back to it."
"I know that, sweetheart, I do understand."
Excerpted from Spring and Fall
by Nicholas Delbanco
Copyright © 2006 by Nicholas Delbanco.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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