The strange urgency with which Flavia Domitia has sought me out suddenly, after two years of silence, has quickly explained itself: she had broken up with her live-in boyfriend; she was – so to speak — back on the market and she wanted to know what my romantic situation was: did someone share my apartment, and did I have a traveling companion?
Ten years ago, I suppose, such a discovery would have flattered me – young men are disposed to imagine that they are liked; today, it makes me sad – because, no longer young, I have been cured. Young men’s illusions of their irresistible sex-appeal are inflated by the elaborate strategies women play against them: younger males being by definition men with a future, females play them for long term gain: they invest a good deal upfront, and patiently wait for the future pay off. Younger men mistake this investment for selflessness and imagine that they make women lose control – but it isn’t them, it’s their future prospects.
Men my age, on the other hand, are at or near their peak earnings, there isn’t much upside, and the expiry date is in clearly in sight: the pay-off, if any, must be now: people — men as well as women — play us for immediate gain; the terms of the transaction are made far too readily to leave room for romantic delusion. Donna Flavia’s purpose was not even thinly disguised.
(I suppose, also, that older men’s experience is in part determined by the fact that they tend to encounter older women and older women have less time to play elaborate long-term games: they want to be paid in this life, and, given their age, this, too, has to mean – now).
But my three-hour conversation with Donna Flavia was not all about that; it had other elements deserving reflection.
We talked, for instance, about the way our lives have unfolded – we have known each other for the better part of forty years – and about the way our lives were likely to unfold in the future, which is a topic rarely discussed — perhaps even rarely thought about — but which has always interested me greatly.
What will I do, Donna Flavia asked me, once I return to my new home from my travels. I said that I would spend a great deal of time watching the sunrise from my window, sitting in the park with a book, taking walks through my beautiful city, and eating in small, hole-in-the-wall eateries, chasing pataniscas with rich Alentejo; and that I will probably also eventually engage in some sort of a larger project; that I was not yet sure what that project might be, but that I was not inclined to push it, so as not to frighten it unnecessarily: such a project should always germinate and grow on its own, all I needed to do was to nourish it well and – wait. My analogy was to Lampedusa – not that I imagine to write the best novel of my century the way he wrote the best novel of his – but the mechanism is the same: live long, experience much, observe closely, think hard; and only when you have grasped it, digested it, understood it, then say it: once, briefly, and to the point. Under 200 pages, if you can.
Will I stay in my new city for good, Donna Flavia asked me next, accustomed as she is to see my mailing address changing continents every five years. I replied that my current apartment was going to be my home for a long time, but that it was not going to be my last home; my next home would probably be my last home, but I could not yet tell where that home would be, whether in my present city or somewhere else.
At this, Donna Flavia chuckled and suggested that it probably was pointless to take such a long view of things, given the unpredictability of fate. As she spoke, I realized that her own, somewhat chaotic life – in which she was as often an object of life as she was its subject — might have been responsible for forming that view; but my life very much proved the efficacy of long term plans. I believe I was 18 when I developed the vision of the future which has now become now my present. I didn’t know at that time how I would get here; nor that my current city would be the place where I would live my future (at that time I imagined that the place might be Athens instead). But the life I envisioned then, the situation in life, was very much what I have now: long park-sittings with a book, in the shade of flowering trees, even longer solitary walks, sunrise watchings, endless slow reading and meandering reflection. I was 27 when I finally formulated the plan that would get me to that future, and 47 when that future arrived. Thinking in 20 year blocks has worked for me.
I was beginning to feel pretty smug about the whole thing, when then Donna Flavia told me about her present life: single again, her children gone from the house but so far un-eager to reproduce, she has now, finally, for the first time in her life, had the time to dedicate herself to the work she had chosen for herself and which she likes. It consists is researching and writing a series of books of a kind of oral micro-history of her city. In doing this, she is experiencing flow: the satisfaction of working at a project which challenges her skills and fulfills her aspirations. I reflected that I have never had the privilege of enjoying the professional work I have done – which is, no doubt, why I prize my park-sittings-with-a-book so much. At her words, I felt a momentary pang of envy, and resolved, in the back of my mind, to listen more intently for any signs of the future project germinating within me. It would be good to experience flow for once.