Stepping through a small alley in this ever-changing city of the ancients and the corrupt, I feel it: The Craving. It is a sensation that follows me around and never leaves me, except for when I have a long pointy needle in my arm, except for when I am injecting emptiness into my veins. I'm sweating and shaking, even though night is approaching faster and faster. My steps ring out with an echo in these streets. I've been here for so long, I can no longer get lost. I can no longer leave. I can no longer break free. My body hums the melody of the city as my feet carry me along the usual pathways, across the usual plazas, into the same old alleys where other Cravers are already gone, some dead, some still here, but all of them gone, their eyes glazed over like Lake Garda during the coldest winters. Gone.
Injecting the heroine into my veins, the rush carries me out. I don't care anymore. I don't care that I can only barely manage to stay alive, I don't care that I'm depressed, don't have any friends. I don't care that my family has given up on me. I don't care that they don't care. I don't even care about my addiction, about the fact that I just gave that guy the last money I owned, and that tomorrow I'll be needing dope again and won't be able to pay for it. At this moment in time, I don't stop to imagine a future in which I owe a terrible debt to the pusher, who will then sic the mob on me. I don't stop to imagine how they will arive in their black suits and thin hair, how they will torture me and break every bone in my body. At this moment I don't care about that. The rush takes me to this void and leaves me here. It brings me home where I belong. I can see the stars.
I wake up on the railing of the Spanish Steps, my face pressed against the cold stone, my back aching and my body sore. I sit up to find that it's early morning. The pedestrians are taking time out of their day to send either suspicious or disgusted glances my way. I know; It's been a long time since my last wash. I notice that I'm missing a tooth. My whole body is aching. I find myself wishing the rush hadn't worn off. I find myself wishing that I didn't care. I take a deep breath, crawl down from the railing and begin ascending the steps. Not sure why. It just seems like the right thing to do when you can't help but care.
Times passed, the day grows older. I see people going to work in blue shirts, stilettos, black polished shoes, ties, dresses, skirts, it all seems to rush by, pieces of clothing, heads without faces, bodies without people, people without souls. There are tourists sitting outside cafés sipping coffee, speaking foreign languages I don't understand. But I find myself caring, wondering. Who are these people? Where do they come from? Why can't I be one of them? What's it like to travel? Curious as my thoughts were, they always end in painful longings, impossibilities, dread. I am trapped.
In my despair I tread through Italy pretending to be like them: A tourist, carefree and happy, exploring a new place with unknowing feet. I arrive at the Fonta di Trevi, and for a second it really does feel like I'm seeing it for the first time; it has that special glow around it, a glory and a grandness, but also just a sweet sense of nostalgia. For a second, something about it sends a shiver down my spine. I think it's the abstinences hitting me again, but it isn't. Not yet. I've still got a few hours to go before I'll be either shaking in the gutter or high on schmack. The city is buzzing with life. I see a lady holding her child in front of the fountain. They seem happy. The child turns around, and suddenly every muscle in its face shows concentration. Then she throws the coin over her shoulder. At the sound of the coin breaking through the surface of the water, she laughs. “Poor child,” I think, “Doomed to return to this miserable city.” I don't have any coins to throw in. I have a missing tooth and a head ache.
Stepping back from the fountain, I suddenly notice there are other people here as well – they're not just tourists. Silent figures at the edge of the scenery are standing by their easels. Some of them are only shadows, hidden, some of them visible in the growing day light. I notice a man standing very centrally in front of the fountain, waving his paint brush with big swings of the arm. He seems to be trying to catch the attention of the crowd rather than capture them, portray them. He walk up behind him to take a look at his work. He doesn't see me at all. I pull my cap down over my eyes and decide I don't care – I don't want him to see me.
Tired and sore, I limp my way away from the fountain. I can no longer pretend that I am a tourist because I can no longer believe. I have no faith in this city, no faith that a new beginning could ever be given to me. I hear the roar of the fountain and the crowd behind me and known that I will drown in the masses of the water from the Fonta di Trevi. As I walk away, I remember: I threw a coin in the fountain when I was five.
A low humming suddenly reaches me. It seems to grow louder and louder, and though I know it's impossible, it sounds louder in my ears than the roar I just turned my back on. And then suddenly, I see her in the slight shade of a café. Her humming is very subtle and slow. There is melancholy and nostalgia in the tune, although she looks happy under her bright blue hat. The hat is almost covering her face, but I can see her smile and the wrinkles the smiles of a life time has printed into her face. The humming goes on, very slow, very quiet, very warm. I stop, unable to walk, think, speak. All I can do is listen. Listen and watch.
Suddenly I find myself standing behind the lady who is sitting at the table of the café. Her perfume smells like cherry blossom. She is drawing in a sketch book lying neatly in front of her on the table next to a glass of water and a cup of steaming tea. A wooden box at her feet is flooded with painting materials. She keeps on humming, and I find myself humming along as I look at her drawing pad. I fall into the picture, and suddenly I understand: She is seeing, feeling, knowing. With every line her pencil traces, she is tracing the soul of these people, feeling and exploring everything they are in this exact moment in time. The figures in her drawing seem familiar to me. And suddenly, as she traces them line by line, life string by life string, they are: The mother and her daughter I saw by the fountain. There's a kind of glow around them, and the imagery is blooming with joy and the excitement of a new day beginning as she adds colours to it with her aqua paint, but there's something else, too. Something bleak. It feels like the childhood of this child is lost in the very moment she silently mentions it with her pencil. And yet, here it is. Traced and treasured, stored on her paper for years to come.
It isn't until I start shaking that I realize that I've been standing behind this old woman for ours, watching her paint, humming along to her melody. Something wet and warm touches my lips. Lifting my hand to touch it, I realize that it's blood. I'm shaking again. The super flu is hitting me fast, and I don't have any money to buy with. Suddenly the old lady, still humming, rises from her chair. Suddenly all I can think of is the fact that she might have money. Maybe she will give me some.
The lady is walking quietly all by herself. I follow her. My brain is racing now, I'm sweating, desperate to find money, to feel the rush, the rush, the rush. I repeat the words in my brain. It's all I want, all I need, and suddenly I notice how fragile this woman is. She's like a little porcelain doll as she walks through streets and alleys. She takes the bus. I follow. I'm now wondering where she keeps her money, if it will be possible to take it without her noticing, or... Will I have to do something else? To fight for it? Yes, fight, fight, that is the right word... I have to, have to get it. Must get high. She's still humming.
Suddenly she gets off the bus, I follow. I look around and see a few trees. Fields. I am no longer in the city. No longer in the city. My mind can't grasp it, and my body simply starts following her, unsure of everything except the need for money, for dope...
She enters a yellow house, her humming echoing from inside like she got swallowed by a whale that is now keeping her captive because it enjoys her humming too much to set her free. But I wait. And after a few hours the sun has begun painting the fields and the sky in orange and pink colours, and she comes out of the house. She is still humming in the same slow manner. I assume she's left her purse in the house, so while she's setting up her easel outside, I sneak in, shaking and trembling, through the front door, trying to be careful not to hit the wind chime with my shoulder as I pass through the door. A cat curiously glances at me from a green couch.
I quickly spot her purse on the table – it's awfully close to the glass door leading out to the terrace where she's now adding a pink colour to the sky, then a greenish blue to the pond that's also in her view. Shaking and with dried blood on my upper lip and in my beard, my fingers find a leather wallet in the purse. While my fingers open its button, I think of how she not only saw people, she also sees nature. The moment is captured so elegantly by those wrinkled hands, her humming underlining the moment as it creates and erases it at the same time – capturing it, captivating it, drawing it in to recreate it and let it be transformed. The blue is not just blue, it's also green, deep, dark and soulful.
Suddenly she leaves the terrace and walks down to the pond. Astonished and terrified, my fingers stop moving. I stop thinking.
I regain my senses at the sound of my own humming. I'm holding a brush in my hand. I look down and notice I'm splattered with paint. My head is so quiet. I feel confused, but I don't stop humming. I just don't. Then suddenly I hear a voice behind me...
“Quite the expressionist aren't you, child?” she says. I turn around, my heart is racing, I'm shaking, scared, ashamed, overwhelmed. “I like the way you painted me,” she says, nodding at the white blur standing by the pond in the painting. Then I notice the twinkle in her eyes. She smiles warmly. Then she laughs, “You should never stop painting, dear. Now, can I get you a cup of tea?”
She must have noticed the blood on my lip. She must have noticed the way I shake and tremble, the hungry look in my eyes. But she doesn't mention it. She serves me a cup of tea, asks me if I want to shower. She doesn't ask any questions. And while I'm sipping my tea and she is sipping her, it hits me: Maybe she already knows. Maybe she sees me. For a minute I stop shaking. For a minute I am seen, known, recognized. I am more than I have been for years.
She lets me stay. I cry myself to sleep in the guest room upstairs. I awake in the night, shaking, bleeding from my nose, aching. I think my head is going to explode, and I can't stop thinking about heroine, injection, the rush. I fall apart on her kitchen floor, shaking as with fever.
“Come on, dear,” her voice reaches out to me as my tears hit her floor. She's dressed in a white night gown, but the night gown has got colourful stains all over it. I realize that it's stains from painting, and that she's got the wooden box full of painting equipment in her right hand. She offers me her left hand. I accept.
Through the night, I paint my demons into this sweet rural landscape of hers. Her pink coloured sky becomes my blood red sky. The moon shines above me, and I let the cold light that speaks so vividly to the emptiness inside of me become a white glow of morning dew that promises not new beginnings, but uncertainty. I pour my fears into this painting, my fever. The pond that was in her painting becomes a lake in mine, deep and mysterious, full of questions and uncertainty. Still humming, my hands add the Spanish Steps to the painting, letting them lead into heaven. At the top of the steps she appears, an old lady in her nightgown, offering me her hand. I pour the city into the painting. With every stroke of the paint brush, I let go.
The next morning I'm up before she is. My naked feet find their way down the stairs. I grab her purse from the table. The leather purse is nice to the touch, full of promises. I step out onto the terrace. The sun is rising. My feet carry me out onto the grass, and I continue towards the pond. The grass is fresh and wet from dew. I find a coin in her purse. I turn it over in my hands.
I turn around in the morning breeze. I throw the coin over my left shoulder. It breaks through the surface of the water with a sound like porcelain cracking. I smile. Then I laugh for the first time in years, feeling the sun on my face. On the terrace I can see her now. She is humming. She is painting me this time, my life, at this very moment in time, as I begin the long ascend. The hill is sprinkled with dew that glitters in the morning sun.
A new day has begun.