Surprising even myself, I dropped out of Columbia during my last term, in 1970, just three months short of graduation, and went to live on Capri. I left behind my college friends, my parents, and everything familiar in an attempt to cut loose from the overfilled barge of my youth, which had become too heavy to drag. My departure was hard on everyone, especially me, but I had no choice -- or that's how it seemed then.
It had been a terrible winter, and spring had so far been worse. I lay awake at night, disoriented, as if tumbling into a well, fading and falling. Alice with no Wonderland at the bottom of the hole. And nothing seemed to help: barbiturates, prayer, pot. The world, by day, was tinny and artificial, a 3-D movie watched from a seat in a darkened theater, looking in on life from outside, alternately depressed or anxious, always distracted, sure I would never live beyond the age of twenty-five. (Always a slight hypochondriac, I now read minor ailments -- overgrown pimples, tension headaches -- as signs of melanoma or brain cancer, thus giving my spiritual unease a convenient physical location.)
In calendar years, I was twenty-two, but emotionally I was younger. That winter and spring, I read a great deal, as usual, but everything seemed, overtly or covertly, about love or war, the two subjects that sat like deadweights on my chest. I marveled at the passion of Ovid in his love poems for Corinna, wondering what it might feel like to care so much about someone, full of a vaguely disembodied sexual longing that made me queasy at times, ill with dissatisfaction. I would have liked to make contact, physical and emotional, with some of the women at Columbia, but the effort seemed beyond me. On the subject of war, the rhetoric of Virgil struck me as verbiage, however stirring. I didn't care a feather about the fate of Rome or its empire. Caesar's Gallic wars were not mine. I'd had enough of wars, ancient and modern.
My only brother, Nicky, had been killed in Vietnam a few months before my departure. He died near Quang Tri, in winter, having volunteered for what his lieutenant in the obligatory letter to my parents called "a routine reconnaissance mission." He had stepped on a land mine, which meant you didn't get to see the body, or its remnants, when they shipped it home in a medically sealed bag. I can still see my poor father, standing bereft at the back of the church, shaking his head and fumbling with a rosary. Nicky had been dear to him, a son who had reflexively obeyed the call of his country, as he had, during the Second World War.
The steel casket was draped in a flag. They had played taps in the cemetery in Pittston, an honor guard standing by from the local VFW, where my father went most Saturday nights to play cards with old friends and fellow veterans, all of whom believed adamantly in the righteousness of the Vietnam War. "Nick was a real hero," the letter from the lieutenant had said, without elaboration, leaving the details (supplied by countless war movies) to our imaginations, which was probably just as well.
I knew something about Nicky's war and how it felt to him. He had taken to writing me letters from Vietnam -- the first real communication with him that I'd ever had -- and I knew exactly what he thought about this particular war. He hated it, and would have found the flag-draped casket deeply ironic. "This war is about nothing I understand or believe," he wrote. "The whole thing stinks. It's not just stupid, a well-intentioned adventure that somehow went wrong. It's fucking evil. And the worst evil is always one that follows from ignorance." Nicky had become a student of that ignorance, and took pleasure in going over the details with me.
Perversely, my brother's death guaranteed that my draft board, in Luzerne County, would let me alone. The members of that august body knew my father and grandfather well, and it was tacitly agreed that families should suffer only one death per nuclear unit in Vietnam. I would never be drafted, despite my low number in the national lottery. "You're free," my mother, in a hoarse ironic voice, had whispered as we passed beneath the leafless, iron-colored beech trees, walking away from Nicky's grave, which overlooked the Susquehanna River.
Free -- a lovely word. Yet I felt less free than ever before. Nicky had been the one my father assumed would join the family company, Massolini Construction, founded by my grandfather and now managed by my father. Nicky was the one who was "good with his hands," and his death had interrupted that plan. In an ill-conceived moment, thinking it would comfort them, I told my parents I would return to Pittston myself, to work in the company, upon graduation from Columbia. They had been surprised, but pleased -- even delighted. "Why not?" my father said, suppressing an outright smile. "We can use a good man, somebody with your brains. You're gonna run the company yourself pretty soon." My grandfather had simply kissed me on either cheek: the ultimate blessing.
My mother was quietly satisfied by this turn of events. "You're a good boy, Alex," she said. "We need you around here." Nicky was lost, but she would have me forever. This decision of mine made sense in Pittston, since everybody in the town already thought of me as my mother's son. And they were not far wrong. I loved her, and she loved me, and my father had never been quite allowed into the intimate circle that we drew around us. As a kid, I went shopping with my mother every Saturday afternoon, just the two of us, and we'd stop at Bellino's, a…
Excerpted from THE APPRENTICE LOVER © Copyright 2002 by Jay Parini. Reprinted with permission by HarperPerennial Library Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
The Apprentice Lover