Maura Pellettieri, Before I Began

I am on a train that is going south, from France to Italy. I have never been to Italy. I am alone, but I am not alone. All around me are exquisite strangers. Nonnas in archaic black, mamas dressed in ragged cotton pants and China-cheap silver flats, babies swaddled in dark blankets like lumps of little coal. The clothing and the smell of crackers pin us to this era. But we feel timeless to me. I think it is the profusion of maternity.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎Somehow, in this train car, I remember no men. But it seems likely there were men, one or two at least, so I will import them from another train, a train I took some other day—they will be Italian, there will be two of them, stately, sitting silently in strong brown eyes, groomed beards, thickly woven blazers. They will be men in the way that men are, receding to the background, watching us all, waiting; waiting, perhaps for nothing. They stare at me sometimes, neither kindly nor unkindly. Sometimes I stare back. Sometimes I know without looking.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎I boarded the train in Lyon, and since Lyon, I have slept and woken; the train has snaked through small towns pinned inside capacious stretches of land and sky, and I keep opening my eyes again, looking out to think the same thought anew: How fresh it is, this world, and how ancient. To my eyes, it is new, yet it is all very old.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎I hear it said—it is often said—that Europe is older than America, but this is not true. It is only (mostly) that the architectural record is older. And when we speak of architecture, what do we speak of, or rather whom? Which is to say, it is only that the record of whiteness is older. In any case, whatever age it is, and is of, the age of Europe is felt, in its certain way. It has been looked at many times, many moments over, by many different and differing pairs of eyes. It is a body with a history that has been witnessed. And before any eyes watched it, still it was a landscape, needing no one. I know this, and yet, I believe it is new—not only because of its newness to me, but because everything is very green, and green appears somehow as the color of youth. All in this new old world is green, or if not that, then the color of stone. It is nearly winter, whatever that means in these summer–shaded mountains.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎As we approach Italy, a conductor comes through the car to look at everyone’s papers. He looks straight out of another era—his mustache and blue uniform, his slicked black hair. He looks severe, and I love him in the way it is possible to love a stranger: His whole existence is aesthetic to me. Also, I love the severity of his purpose. He examines my face because this is his job, and I examine his face, because this is my job. We have the same job, though different purposes. He is in charge of keeping the border, and me—although I do not know it yet, although I have not yet begun—it is also my job to attend to the borders, and then to use language to try to blow them apart. I try to blow up the borders, where and when I find them. All of the borders that anyone could keep. To do this work, I watch faces—to see if I can catch a glimpse of the secret border in a body, between a body and the world it lives in, and sometimes, in certain circumstances, between a body and its void, a body and its underworld, a body and its sleep. Long before I know my work, before I have begun it, (and so, before I have begun me), I am watching faces.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎This man travels between France and Italy. He goes back and forth. He looks at documents, each one a tiny book that contains, superficially, the meaning of someone’s life and face. I too travel. I cross country lines, and other lines, un-seeable though pervasive—someone drew them once, (someone drew them first), and others continue this work—the lie that time is only forward–moving, and the many lies of Godly wars, defended by false concepts of purity and race. But do I act merely as witness or as obtrusive photographer? Between my body and the world, what is the border that I make?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎As the day progresses, the train car livens slightly. Lunches are unpacked. Between the women, soft, concerned murmurings. I watch and listen closely; I do not speak. I see the beauty of my sentiment, and in equal part, I see my delusion—it is, as all delusions are, authoritative. For I understand that to cross into boundlessness, I must first have a line to negotiate. There is no seamlessness without a stitch, no language without boundary.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎So the conductor studies me; so I study him. He stares at my face, the one inside the tiny book that holds my name, and then looks back at the person contained by the name, who is me. Looking at his face, I have this feeling, unfounded: All of the people on a given train are family. After all, we are alone together, on a skinny track, high up. It is possible—we might need one another. I can see his face quite clearly, even now, though from the place in time I write this, many years have passed. If I saw him on the street today, I would know him well, as well as I would know any I have been intimate with. Or, more likely, I would know my memory, which is to say, I might not remember him at all. I might recall him in any blue uniform, return to him at the sight of any thin and wrinkled face, in any man’s black mustache.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎And then, as quickly as he appears to me, he is gone. I look at the bundles of children across the aisle, their glittering mothers, the pinched and swollen nonnas. I look at the stone walls out the window, stacked and falling, dappling the cold vast green in sweet dullness.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎I am on my way to Turin. I know this; I have planned it. In fact, I am on my way to meet a lover who I have not met yet—I know this too somehow, even though I do not know it, cannot possibly. And yet I do know, I have the feeling of him inside me—if not in my mind, then in my consciousness, whatever place in us where lovers exist in the moments when we are not touching—and he occupies me already with his stern and taciturn presence, a quiet easeful foreshadowing. Without a face, without a name, yet without a body, still he fills me. I remember the feeling of this particular knowing—the roundness of prophetic thought—that nothing exists prior to my vision, and I seem to know nothing, remember nothing of my life before the moment I am in. In the whole of the world, there is only what belongs to now—the stones, the green, the man in his mustache, the hushed women traveling, nearly all in black—and now all of it is contained by my own inexplicable and nameless certainty. That what is in my future is somehow already within me.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎But now, what of the men in the train car?—who I do not remember, not really, but have imported to this memory, who I seem to have invented. Maybe I don’t remember them because they were not there. Maybe I don’t remember them (although they were there) because all of memory is unreliable dreaming. Or—(because I cannot say with certainty where I first saw them, in what memory I met them, though I can be certain they exist)—they were at once there and not there. Because this was the moment just before I learned how slippery it is, how fragile all the borders—my life in its glorious awkwardness, its asymmetrical beauty, my vision just beginning to tip me into another’s life, my identity barely halfway married to itself—and time, as if depleted by its own efforts, collapsing me, my future self into my present one, the desires I did not yet know I had, fulfilled. These were men I saw some place and sometime, in a train car, or if not in a train car, then in a room, in a house, in a country with an age, in a body electric, a body with a purpose, in a future I could not imagine for myself, in some other moment’s magnificent unreliable dream. And all my dreams contained in one body and one name. And so, all my memories, at once of their own moment and of this one.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎This was the moment just before I began to blow up my own borders, the moment before I knew. That the borders I felt certain of, or which I saw in my vision—between what of the landscape was old and what was new, between what belonged to another’s dream and what to my own, between what in me was woman and what was man, or between what in me was American and what was other, between what existed and what was said to exist—were finally, completely, and quite happily, very faulty.
Between long stretches, villages appear. But no matter what appears or doesn’t, my eyes are sated by the mountains. And the closer we creep to Italy, the more this feeling wells up in me—that I am about to touch something that is mine. And, as it turns out, it is a whole country.