Anyway, Hemingway


WORDS Nicolò Michielin 
IMAGES Harry's
I was running late, so Angela went inside the house to wait for me. When she came in, I was in front of the mirror tying my tie.

“You’re always late,” she said. “I fell asleep, and anyway, it’s not true. The other day I waited for you for fifteen minutes at the benches” . I put on my jacket and grabbed the MD that was left from the previous night, when Kat had read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl aloud in front of everyone. She was in Italy for the promotional tour of her new book and was exhausted. She had traveled all over Italy, dealing with screaming fans who treated her like an iconoclastic guru, or like some kind of savior who had landed among them in Miu Miu heels and old punk band shirts from her Midwest teenage days when she shot heroin with her two best friends. They had all moved on, some sooner, some later, but now they were all okay. One of them had stayed to live in that remote town in the American province, working at a Turkish fast food, and when he came home in the evening, he made love to his wife in front of the television. The other was a journalist, a reporter who split his time between Washington and Kinshasa, where he was a correspondent for one of the few English-language publications in the ex Zaire. I made a call and also gave one to Angela. “Come here, there’s a call for you,” I said. That’s what we said when you licked your finger and stuck it into the MDMA, a saying we had taken from Steven Spielberg’s movie E.T. for the alien with the lighted finger and the phrase “E.T. phone home.” From there, all the variations: “I need to make a phone call”, “Can you I call home?”, or “Can I borrow the phone?” or simply “E.T.?” and other similar bullshit that referred to extraterrestrials and spaceships. Another way we used to call that drug was also AIDA in powder, from the name of the nightclub where we used to go as kids, and where, outside of that, once the sweetest of whores offered me a cigarette at a gas station as I walked home on the dawn-lit road. I never knew if that girl, who was around the age I am now, was someone’s love, or from which corner of Bratislava she came. Oh, street angel, where did you go? What were these twenty years for you since that morning? Were you still selling love to people? Were you listening to Joy Division among banknotes and Durex? Who knows if you married a young delinquent or one of your clients. Who knows, baby, who knows if you remember about me too; who knows if you’re making breakfast for your child, if you’re working at the mall now, or if you enjoy singing. Who knows if you bought a coat in your favorite color. Who knows, Maddalena of us all, if you like winter, if you still have my lighter. Did you have pity on yourself? What was your story before that night? Oh, sweet martyr of the world, I’ll never know your name; I’ll never know if you take photos of the night with your iPhone, I’ll never know if you believe in Christ or Hegel, I’ll never know, mystery of the East, if you smile when you look out the window and see laundry hanging on the roofs of the cities. I’ll never know anything about you, my love. “Come on, even tonight? I have to work tomorrow, I have a deadline for the Ph.D. next week, and I’m swamped,” then after a moment of silence, she added while laughing, “Okay, fine, just one call. But then I’m turning off the phone.” 

“If you say so. What’s the name of that guy you’re studying?” “Loos.” “And what Loos would say?” “What do you mean?” “Like, was he a guy that used to have fun? Or did he spend the whole day locked up at home drawing churches?” “Loos didn’t draw churches.” “Same thing.” “You even told me that you were at his bar in Vienna with your ex.” “Oh, that’s true. The first trip we did together.” “You’ve already told me that too, you’re repeating yourself like old people.” “The concept of age is discriminatory in this country. Think about how many sixty-year-olds with crazy stories could be our friends if it weren’t socially sui generis. For example, tonight at dinner, someone could have told a story about ’68 in Paris or about the samizdat of the Moscow underground that could be found in East Berlin shortly after the fall of the Wall. But at that age, unless you’re a poet who likes to drink, you stay home and rot. Anyway, I remember having eaten well in Vienna.” “Definitely better than those Chinese noodle boxes you eat here,” she said, glancing at the table where there were two or three empty containers. I put some on her tongue. “Here’s another perfect example. Instead of taking MDMA like all the other people, we take it at restaurants or vernissage, or like yesterday at Kat’s reading, and we only do it because we associate it with high school. If it weren’t for the fact that we feel lame using it in “normal” situations because we don’t consider it suitable for adulthood, we’d do it at night like everyone else. But this thing about age in relation to social context applies to almost everything, work, relationships, and life in general. We can’t help but think that there are timelines to follow, and in many cases, there are, imposed by nature, but in all the others, they’re nothing more than a forced transposition.” 

We left the house when it was already dark. Venice in early September is magnificent, the air is mild, and during the Film Festival, there are lots of beautiful people around, reminiscent of the 70s. Avant-garde poets and soubrettes blend in with journalists covering the festival for The Times or Le Monde, and then most of them end up drinking in the same places together with architecture students seeking adventures. In Campo Santo Stefano, the evening’s rain had left a large puddle where the church was reflected. On the wall of that building, behind those sun-faded red benches where we often ended up talking at the end of our nights, you can still make out old communist slogans that the diocese had tried to erase with a hasty coat of paint. From a window above a bar, the acid wail of an electric guitar was coming out, and an old man at the top of the bridge was painting topless whores in what seemed to be a district of fishermen and workers. Who knows where he was retrieving those images from in his memory? Perhaps from the secret and authentic homeland of his painting, or maybe from those thoughts where putting a gun in his mouth gave him an extreme sense of peace. Perhaps it was just something a Nouvelle Vague filmmaker had told him, a dangerous drunkard with a unique style who had attended the Academy of Fine Arts back in the day, and who had inspired the dialectic of his entire artistic work: man as an angel and man as a machine. 

That evening we were going to have dinner at Harry’s, which wasn’t far from my apartment: you passed Contini’s gallery, the bar with the green gondoliers’ bench in front where we used to get drinks if we stayed out until dawn, the Bauer (which was closed for renovation at that moment), then a calle full of rich people’s shops one in line to the other, where American tourists bought bags for their wives and Then, after Dior, down Calle Vallaresso to the very end, just before the vaporetto stop, where on some May evenings, if you looked towards the West, the sunset had the color of Algerian summer, and it made you feel on the edge of the world and your own life.

We didn’t go to dinner anywhere else but there or at the most run-down Chinese restaurant in the city, where they’d set two bottles of cheap vodka on the table as soon as we arrived. For us, going to Harry’s Bar wasn’t like going to a restaurant; it was more like going to a museum or a university. Everyone had passed through there at least once: Georges Braque, Peggy Guggenheim, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, who started his lunches with beer mugs full of champagne and ended them with rivers of whiskey. Then Andy Warhol, Almodovar, Giancarlo Menotti, Katherine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Frank Lloyd Wright, Toscanini, Truman Capote, political leaders, philosophers, fashion designers, rappers like Puff Daddy, intellectuals, all the way to aristocrats from everywhere like the fucking Baron Rothschild. And of course, Ernest Hemingway, who almost lived at Harry’s. Talking about his novel Across the River and into the Trees, he said the book took shape in a kind of creative mist right there at Harry’s, calling it a small room containing a microcosm that captured all the greatness and beauty of Venice, the same that the American novelist had found in the verses of Ruskin, Sinclair Lewis, and Byron. So, for me, that place was special. Hemingway, like for many others, was one of my favorite writers, and even though I played it off with a streetwise attitude, pretending not to care about it, I actually found it romantic to go to that place to drink, just like any other asshole who had read about it in an article from Harper’s Bazaar. When we arrived at the door, Brando, Virginia, Sergio, and Smith were already waiting for us. They were smoking a cigarette. We lit one up as well, and I made another call. Then Brando’s girlfriend arrived with a friend, both university researchers along with Angela. As we finished our cigarette, Kat and her husband Marco arrived too. Marco had the eyes of a madman and before moving to Los Angeles, he used to be a hooligan of Hellas Verona, one of the toughest firms in Italy when it comes to fights, and he was someone who knew how to use his hands. A guy I liked that had made something of himself and now could afford a house just a few steps away from the Chateau Marmont. And behind them were four or five guys following Kat. They trailed her to the restaurant’s entrance, asked for yet another photo, and didn’t leave until she went inside. “Damn, don’t these people ever leave you alone?” I asked her. She was too good, too kind to each one of them, but that kind of popularity was consuming her. Kat was clever, one of the most brilliant people I had met in the last couple of years, and above all, she was a damn good writer, but she didn’t seem to realize that this almost religious kind of following would distance her from her literary consecration. Sitting at the table with a Bellini in front of him, Gary was already there. He had just arrived from Milan. For me, Kat, and Brando, Gary had been somewhat of a superstar since the London Loves days; he hadn’t changed a bit compared to ten years before. He was as white as a glass of milk and dressed like an English lord. He was now the creative director of a fashion brand and only played for a few events during the fashion week. As soon as we sat down at the table, I made another discreet phone call. I offered some to Gary who was sitting next to me, but he declined. “You guys don’t seem to have changed much either,” he said, laughing and shaking his head. “What’s that stuff?” Sergio asked. I explained it to him. He paused his overflowing existence for a few moments, thought about it for a second, then shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, give it to me too”. So I made him make a call too. Sergio wasn’t usually involved in this kind of thing, and it’s not like he needed it. His boldest venture in that regard was cultivating some weed plants with a lawyer friend on the terrace of his house in Rome. He lived at the end of Trastevere, where he had moved to work as an engineer, living a sex-hermit life. He didn’t have many friends, and all he did was have sex with French and Australian tourist girls who crowded the capital. He invested all his energy in reaching the primal human act. Even at that moment, he was as usual frenetic, impatient for life with his crazy laughter; he wanted to do something, he had to do something, gulp down every glimpse of the world that stood before him along the road, and then spit out what remained in the face of others, so as to remind them of what they would never have the courage to be. Who knows how many things I didn’t know about him, and honestly, in some ways, I wouldn’t have wanted to know. He and Smith were like brothers, while the rest of the group of friends we hung out with in Venice was divided between those who considered Sergio a madman, a lunatic, and an unpresentable person they did not want around, and those who admired him because he represented a kind of absolute freedom they would never be able to know or experience. He didn’t care about anything at all, he was wild, wandering the world with his dick in hand like a knight with his sword, spreading his semen on anything and any woman who gave him the chance. Smith started telling stories of their adventures in which Sergio was the hero, the undisputed wild protagonist, and he was the observer who had the honor and implied duty to tell them to the world. Smith told the stories in a delightful manner; I felt like I was there with them, observing the scene. He gestured, said “I swear” or “Sergio, stop me if it’s not true.” We listened to every word and didn’t want him to ever stop telling them. He told about Cuba, when they arrived in a small town four hours’ drive from Havana, the June Caribbean sun scorching the road. A patronal festival was in full swing, plunging the town into the din of Cuban mambo and chaos throughout the night, a primal rhythm that hits Westerners right in the face like an obscene fantasy. In the city you could not get around in a car but only with mules. On the night they arrived, they got drunk drinking rum, bought countless bottles of it; all the local girls danced around them, and Sergio was consumed by absolute frenzy, sweaty and completely drunk, he wanted each of those young women like a shipwrecked man wants a glass of water, he desired them unbelievably. When dawn was breaking, Smith went to sleep, and Sergio wanted to stay out. At lunchtime, Smith woke up, Sergio wasn’t in the room. He went to look for him and found him asleep on a bench, without his shirt on and completely sunburned in the Caribbean sun in parts not covered by his clothes, with a bottle of Havana at his feet, so drunk he didn’t want to leave. In Costa Rica, while having sex with a bisexual girl on the terrace of a dingy hostel room in San Jose, he interrupted the sexual act and went completely naked, erect penis and all, through the lobby to knock on the door of his lover’s wife, trying to convince her to join them in an absurd nighttime orgy. She refused, and the other people, strangers, with whom the two girls shared the hostel room, were left flabbergasted. 

In Recife, not even ten minutes after their arrival on the beach, approached a doctor with florid breasts and braces on her teeth, took her for a walk on the beach, had sex with her, and when they returned to sit on their towels, he fell madly in love with something like a a young mulatto girl he saw not far away, lying in the sun next to her mother and brothers.

He suddenly stopped talking to the doctor, (Smith was keen on pointing out that he stopped suddenly, “As if I were now to abruptly get up from the table and leave without speaking to you again,” he said precisely), got up, and went to his young crush. Before approaching her, however, he went to her mother, brought her flowers, juices, caipirinhas, and ice creams for all the other siblings, young kids with ancient faces. Then he asked her permission to take her daughter for a walk on the beach. Smith observed everything from a distance, smoking sigarillos (they used approximate terms they had heard here and there for many things, which had entered their vocabulary, for example, the peones were the poor), trying to explain to the doctor that Sergio was crazy, and there was absolutely nothing he could do. Later on, he disappeared with the young Capishana in the city’s most infamous favela, where they made love for two days in a tin shack without running water. Smith spent that time smoking Chocolope with flight attendants and a gay steward from PanAm, whom Sergio had made an arrangement with as a backup in case things went wrong with the other girl. In Las Vegas, in a ramshackle motel off the Strip where they had spent the last night before leaving, they were in the lobby with their luggage waiting for a taxi, when Sergio told Smith that he had arranged to meet an Argentine girl he had met the night before and she would arrive in about a minute. Smith was furious; he didn’t want to miss the flight and begged Sergio to be reasonable. The girl arrived, Sergio took her hand, turned to Smith, and with absolute firmness, conviction, and seriousness in his blue eyes, said, “In exactly sixteen minutes, when the taxi I booked arrives, I’ll be done and I’ll be here with you.” He got the keys back from the receptionist who had witnessed the scene but hadn’t understood anything except for a big chaos, and he disappeared up the stairs holding the girl’s hand. Exactly sixteen minutes later, not a second later, he rushed into the lobby with his shirt open, completely sweaty and red-faced from the hustle and bustle he had put himself through; without stopping, he grabbed his suitcase, looked at Smith who saw him darting ahead, said “Let’s go,” and got into the waiting taxi on the sunny street. He gestured to his lover from the window and told Smith, “Sorry, but you know I absolutely had to do it, and I couldn’t have done anything different.” Smith didn’t say anything because as worried as he was about missing the flight, he also knew he could trust Sergio. And this is just a glimpse of who Sergio Lozano is; I had seen with my own eyes all sorts of things in the several years I had known him, and those were simply the stories I wasn’t updated on in detail. To start, we ordered a Montgomery, named after Bernard Law Montgomery, the British general who during World War II was known for having his troops frequently engage the enemy in numerical superiority. That’s why in the drink, you find fifteen parts of the quintessential English liquor, gin, and just one part of vermouth, all served in a small, rigorously chilled, 60-gram cylindrical glass. Legend has it that Hemingway himself invented this drink, and similarly, it’s said that Truman Capote called this shot Silver Bullet. Whether this was true or not doesn’t matter that much; we drank it because we liked the idea. For us, it was a kind of rule or tradition to start with a Montgomery (which they also called Martini there) and finish with a green Chartreuse. During the Film Festival, that place is always full of movie stars and beautiful women, and that evening was no exception. 

At the table in front of ours, the one with the brass plate on which was written “RESERVED TABLE FOR THE SENATE OF HARRY’S BAR from 11:00 AM to 12:45 PM,” two Victoria’s Secret angels were dining with one of my favorite directors, and at the back of the room, half of the cast of a film rumored to be one of the favorites for the Golden Lion award was seated.

At the corner table, I noticed a writer. He had been a thief and then a guard, in fact, most of his early short stories were nothing more than a reworking of the reports he had written during the night shift in a Yugoslav barracks in the early ‘90s and, more importantly, he had been a guide for an entire generation of university students and thugs, who had written his verses as if they were declarations of love on the bullet-ridden walls of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And now there he was, a few meters from me, a few meters from Kat, squeezed between owners of palaces on the Grand Canal and upper-class women engaged in environmental crusades, showing him off like a trophy, living proof of their cultural status. Because art, in some way, is also a servant of power, a servant of money, an accessory made by the poor to be exhibited by the rich. And that writer, who once didn’t even have the money to buy cigarettes, and whose books spoke of his life as a martyr in Zagreb’s worst neighborhood, had lost his sanctity, farther than ever from the man who wrote those pages that the teenage Kat clutched between car bombs and gunfire in the heart of war-torn Europe, and excommunicated from the real world, where those who aren’t slaves to anyone have stars on their knees, because they don’t kneel to anyone. When the appetizers arrived at the table, Sergio said, “Honestly, I don’t feel anything.” “Because you took too little,” I replied. So he wanted more, he had several rounds of it. Angela did the same, going back on her good intentions from a few hours ago. Smith, who like Sergio had never tried it, just like he hadn’t tried nearly any other drugs, given that he had been a high-profile athlete for most of his life, got swept up in the general fervor and convinced himself that this was the right situation to start. From there, nearly everyone did it with extreme nonchalance. “Look what the fuck you guys make me do. I’m a good person,” Smith said. “You know, Smith, during our first public law class, our professor, now a judge in the Constitutional Court, so not the last of the cunts, told us this sort of anecdote. I don’t remember exactly what his point was, but interpret it as you like. He illustrated two types of people. One was what you could call a drunkard and a drug addict. In school, he was a lousy student, took amphetamines, and downed Johnny Walker and gin from sunrise to night. He was someone you could rarely cross paths with completely sober. The other, on the other hand, was the typical good person, without any vices, a family and church type. Well, the first one went by the name Winston Churchill, a great statesman, Nobel Prize winner in literature, and champion of the free world, or at least that’s what they say; I don’t remember the name of the second one, but he was something like a dictator or a despot of some sort, with blood on his hands. This is to say that getting a bit high doesn’t make you a bad person; humans have been trying to escape from this shitty world since the dawn of time, it’s in our nature,” Brando replied. “You know that our criminal procedure professor became a judge in the Constitutional Court too?” I said with my mouth full of bread. Before Brando could respond, Smith intervened again: “And look at how you guys have turned out, but we’re in a democratic country, so do as you please. And anyway, Brando, I might believe in your speech, but I don’t think a mother would buy into this philosophy,” he concluded, laughing. “Unfortunately,” Virginia said. “Unfortunately what?” Smith retorted, turning to her. “Unfortunately, we’re in a democratic country!” “You at most read David Foster Wallace novels in cafes, you have no idea what it’s like to live in a non-democratic country, Virginia.” “Obviously, I didn’t mean that. I meant that not all men are the same; there are better and worse ones, and the concept of democracy can only work in a dynamic of substantial equality. I’m not saying that everyone shouldn’t have equal rights, quite the opposite. I’m just saying that the best or the capable should take on the burden of choosing for everyone. And not as an act of domination, but as a service to others. For example, if there were a god, and if by its nature, it acted only for the greater good, I think it would be functional for him to decide for everyone.” “And how do you know that this hypothetical sovereign, or whatever you want to call it, would make the right choice?” “I can’t know that, of course. My argument is theoretical; if I had the solution to this question, I would dedicate all my energy to a revolution. The fact is that given the general stupidity of most people, myself included if you like, any common decision won’t work. This is because many wouldn’t even be able to discern the best decision for their own good.” “You can’t know that.” “True, I can’t know that. But let’s try a stupid example that I find illustrative: if we had chosen whether to take MD based on the simplest majoritarian principles at this dinner, you, who usually don’t even get drunk and certainly don’t do these things, would have had crystals on your tongue. Now, let’s assume that drugs are harmful: if you could have chosen, you would have spared everyone from taking them.” “This argument has very little to do with democracy. And anyway, in that case, it would mean that at that moment, the social context’s good was to take MDMA.” 

“But was it really their good?”

“Enough, you’re confusing me. Let’s make a toast: to democracy,” Smith said, and everyone raised their glasses. No one had touched the wine; the small cups in which it had been poured were still full, and one of Angela’s rings had ended up in one of them. Everyone was drinking vodka and soda while having dinner. “The lights are too bright in this room,” Kat said, “or maybe it’s me who drank too much. Anyway, cheers.” Since I had known her, every time Kat finished a sentence with “anyway,” I responded with “Hemingway.” Another thing Kat often said was “It’s ok,” but contrary to its literal meaning, when she said it, it meant that things were definitely not okay, but she was too polite to say otherwise. She was adorable. When the steak I ordered as the main course arrived, I was so fucked up that I couldn’t even swallow the meat. Sergio was the same, and so were the others. There they were, my friends, an enclave of academics and junkies, sitting among actresses in Saint Laurent dresses and power-corrupted revolutionaries who had abandoned their ideologies. Waves of ecstasy kept washing over me, which I tried to conceal. We had finished everything, but Kat’s husband continued to linger with his finger in the bag under the table. “E.T. has gone back to his fucking planet among the stars. There’s nothing left,” Marco said. “Do you believe in aliens? Anyway, Alvaro still has two grams on the shelf upstairs, we can go steal it from him as soon as we leave here, what do you think?” I asked him. “Yes, in the sense that I believe in the possibility of their existence, mostly because an infinite universe entails an infinite number of possibilities that could exist. But where’s Alvaro anyway, why didn’t he come?” “He told me he’d be in Giudecca all evening at his friend’s atelier, painting and drinking Calvados. He took a sheet of LSD before leaving home. Now he’s into that stuff, buying it on the dark web, or whatever the hell it’s called. A few days ago, one morning, we were taking a vaporetto ride, sitting aft in the outdoor seats, drinking a bottle of JD, and at one point, he just placed one of those smiley-faced tabs on his tongue. So, besides aliens, do you also believe in God?” “No.” “Why?” “I don’t find it reasonable.” “But being an atheist is exactly like being religious; you’re still believing in something you can’t have any certainty about. The possibilities that God exists are infinite, just as the possibilities that He doesn’t exist are infinite, exactly as for the aliens. The only reasonable choice in this regard is agnosticism.” Meanwhile, the desserts arrived. Gary wanted the meringue cake, while the others had vanilla ice cream. We sipped Chartreuse at the counter, discussing communist apostasy, and after bidding farewell to the guys working there, we exited through the back door, since the entrance was already closed; practically, we were the only ones left inside the place. We were supposed to go to a party for one of the films, but instead, we all headed to Angela’s terrace. Before that, though, we swung by to pick up Alvaro’s MD, while he, blissfully unaware and probably high, was painting his neo-cubist proletarian canvases with his friend, a Ukrainian surrealist who dressed like Julian Schnabel and kept a copy of Fiesta between oil paints and empty beer cans. I also swiped a pack of Marlboro Lights from the table. We listened to Spacemen 3 all night long, and as Revolution played, I spotted a shooting star in the sky; it was like witnessing a comet streaking across the firmament, from East to West among the other little white stars. I made a wish with the innocence of a child. Then Lord Can You Hear Me started playing, and I wondered if anyone up there in the sky would ever hear my request, the simple prayer of a man gazing at the stars, listening to rock and roll with his friends — young men in the rapture of ecstasy, cigarettes glowing between their fingers, and young women donning movie star sunglasses. Rave of love, Canto degli Angeli. Oh, heavenly God, where were you? Where were you when brothers were killing each other in Ukraine? Where were you as the revolution in West Africa unfolded amid bombs? Where were you in the public housing and silicon fields? Where were you in the mothers breaking their backs? Where were you in the border fences of the Balkans? Where in rockstar suicides and the problems of good people? Where in Chico Mendes’ tears? Then again, who was I to be heard amid all of this? 

But on the other hand, dear God, whether you’re the Lord of the Indian tribes or the one for whom minarets echo, we all tend to focus on the worst, because it’s easier, yet we relish every blessed day like dogs savoring the fragments of beauty scattered across this earth, where even mystics and rebels ultimately find peace.