The Biennale group — most of whom, like Nate, hail from central Massachusetts — has taken over the small, three-and-a-half-star (they claim) hotel in Sestiere Dorsoduro. Nate, fearing his social skills may have atrophied after so many months of self-imposed solitude, is standing by himself in the crowded lobby and doing his level best to escape notice or, if noticed, feign innocence, strategies that until a year ago he'd never had to work at. What happened with the Mauntz girl changed all that.
Or did it? he wonders. Maybe it's his own low self-regard that people are picking up on. Earlier, in the airport baggage claim, Julian had taken one look at him and demanded to know what was wrong. When Nate, surprised, had asked his brother what he meant, Julian had just shrugged, his annoyance morphing effortlessly to indifference. "You look all uncunted," he explained.
"All what?" Nate said, thinking he'd misheard. Though Nate was the English professor, it was his brother who'd always had a romance with language, especially clever or sly turns of phrase that identified their speaker as cool. Pushing seventy, Julian even now considered himself hip.
"Uncunted," he happily repeated. Apparently he had a new favorite word. "Unhinged, unmoored," he continued helpfully, "untethered, unraveled ... fucked up."
Amazing, Nate thought. Thirty seconds into their first face-to-face conversation in years and he already wanted to strangle the man.
Of course, it was entirely possible that his brother's reaction had nothing to do with Nate's appearance. Maybe Julian had heard about his disgrace from Brenda, to whom in a weak moment last spring Nate had confessed everything. She'd sworn she wouldn't tell his brother, but maybe she'd thought better of that promise. In a way, Nate almost hoped this was the case. Better for Julian to know than for him to see what had happened with the Mauntz girl written all over his face. Because if his mental state (unhinged, unmoored, untethered, unraveled, uncunted) is that obvious, he might as well give up now. The rest of the Biennale group, all strangers except for his brother, would likely catch on in short order.
Stop, Nate chides himself sternly. Because isn't this precisely the kind of thinking he's just traveled halfway around the world in the hopes of escaping? He is not a monster. He's not. The fact that he's felt like one the past twelve months doesn't make him one. Nor can people see inside him. They won't know the truth unless he confesses it. And what is the truth, after all? Okay, without meaning to, he's harmed someone. Just how badly, he may never know. And he's also harmed himself; that much, too, is clear. Still, people live with such things. With worse things, Nate knows. They have no choice. He has no choice.
Nearby, Klaus, who will lead the Biennale group here in Venice and later in Rome, is telling a story about the offspring of fifteenth-century prostitutes who were conscripted to sing at Mass because of their angelic voices. Because many were grotesquely deformed from venereal disease, they were carefully situated behind opaque screens to safeguard the finer sensibilities of nearby patrician worshippers, lest the singers' unseemly appearance divert their attention from the Divine. Hearing this, Nate again finds himself thinking about the Mauntz girl, though it's not immediately clear why. Was it starting all over again? A year ago, his thoughts had labored along on some sort of unending loop where everything — overheard conversations, song lyrics, scenes from movies — reminded him of what had happened. Going to ground had helped, at least for a while. Muting the noise of the outside world had also turned down the volume on the voices in his head, a much needed relief. Was it a mistake to allow the noise back in? If so, it's too late to correct. For the next twelve days, unless his courage fails him and he locks himself in his room, he will be back in the world of others. He will see and be seen.
Scanning the crowded lobby, he notices the two women standing near the elevator. The taller one is attractive in an anxious, deer-in-the-headlights sort of way, but, as luck would have it, it's her squat, plain companion with whom he makes accidental eye contact. Seeing what's about to happen, he looks around for his brother, but Julian is still deep in conversation with Bea, the woman who's organized the trip. The good thing about Julian — maybe the only good thing — is his uncanny ability to reduce Nate to a state of welcome insignificance. On the way in from the airport, Julian spent the entire trip talking to the driver of the water taxi. Julian loves to chat up strangers. People to whom he has a real connection are a different story. His endless silences were the reason, or one of them, that Brenda cited for divorcing Julian.
Nate realized, sitting alone in the water taxi, listening to Julian and the taxi driver shout at each other over the roar of the engine and the slapping of the boat's bottom on the waves, that he'd done it yet again. Knowing better, he'd made the mistake of expecting too much of his brother. His flight had arrived late, and when he saw on the monitor that Julian's would be arriving early, he'd decided to wait. It was only forty-five minutes, and they could share a taxi, spend the half-hour journey catching up. His all too predictable reward was to be told he looked "uncunted" and then ignored. Nor should he have been surprised when, arriving at the hotel, Julian turned to him in his most offhanded manner and said, "You don't mind falling on this particular grenade, right?" He hadn't had a chance to stop at the ATM at the airport, he explained (Sure you did, it was on the tip of Nate's tongue to say), and he'd pay Nate back that evening when the group went out to dinner.
At any rate, as the two women approach, weaving their way among the crowd, Nate knows he's on his own. The plain one arrives first, thrusting her hand out, much as a man would, and announcing that her name is Evelyn, or, if he prefers, Eve. Nate, wondering why on earth he should have a preference, takes the proffered hand and feigns delight to be met. Evelyn's (Eve's?) hair is cut sensibly short for a woman her age (early sixties, Nate figures, though he's never been much good at guessing women's ages), and she's wearing something like a tracksuit, except nicer than that, maybe even expensive. The general impression she conveys is of a woman who once upon a time cared about how she presented herself to men but woke up one morning, said fuck it, and was immediately happier. It seems she is also one of those women who's confident she knows what's in the best interest of others. Seeing someone who obviously prefers to be left alone, she's just that much more determined to include him in whatever awful group activities she's contemplating. The word she probably uses to describe whatever she has in mind is "fun." It won't be, Nate is certain.
Her companion — whom she introduces as Rene — offers a nice contrast. Tall and slender and coltishly awkward, she's dressed in a long, flowing skirt and a sleeveless silk blouse, a colorful shawl draped over her fragile shoulders. Unless Nate is mistaken, paralyzing anxiety is this woman's more or less constant companion. Her hands are restless birds, anxious to take flight. And when she offers one, he hesitates, fearing it might not be possible to capture something so delicate without damaging it. But of course this doesn't happen, and when it doesn't he feels a surge of gratitude so powerful that he's able to envision a future, a whole new life — one devoted to reassuring this lovely woman that there is absolutely nothing to fear. An odd thing for a man in his present circumstance to imagine, but, given Nate's personal history, not terribly surprising, either. All his life he's gotten out ahead of himself where attractive women are concerned; he wishes it were otherwise, but things are never otherwise, are they? Things are always as they are.
From Nate In Venice by Richard Russo. Copyright 2013 by Richard Russo. Excerpted by permission of Byliner Inc.