I am in Mantua (well, Mantova to the home folks), having dinner under a groined and painted ceiling in a square room with remnants of frescoes on the wall. I have spent the day in palaces, specifically the palazzo the Gonzango family called home and the other one, the Palazzo del Te, where they hung out to go horseback riding and kept their Titians. The Gonzangos liked art as well as horses; they commissioned it, they hung it, they had their walls painted by people like Mantegna, who was a Mantova boy himself.

At the in-town palace, the Palazzo Ducale, a room – not a large room, but a smallish one that gives a sense of privacy to the stunning frescoes on its walls – the family of Lodovico Gonzaga and members of his court are portrayed by Mantegna himself. I am here in the off season and was the only one taking a close look at the family this afternoon. What about relationships, rivalries, decisions on who sat where at the dining table? It’s a big palace, was it always big enough to contain the lives & loves & ambitions of these people?

So, having dinner alone – I’ve just finished a ten-day organized tour and my habit after enforced socializing is to go off by myself – I am looking round at the other diners as well as at the restaurant’s tattered art. The people at the tables begin to interest me in the same way I have wondered about the people I’ve seen in paintings today..

Nearby is a handsome woman of a certain age, distinctively gray haired, dining with a younger, equally good-looking man. I decide to make up a story about them.

She is a writer of intellectual whodunits; he has been her secretary but they are meeting now after an absence of some time. She is moderately famous, somewhat rich. He was still studying for an advanced degree in – what? Some exotic poetry? – when working for her, which was useful to her then current novel. Her need for a secretary was matched by his need, as a student, for a paying job. He lived in her house/villa/large old fashioned apartment. (The latter, I think.)

While I am making this up she pulls out her spectacles. They are precisely what I would have imagined for her – heavy rims with dash. I continue my story.

One night she appears in his bedroom. They make love, he proceeding more from surprise than passion and only moderately adequate to the occasion. She leaves his room. The following morning she says to him, firmly, “I slept soundly all night. Did you?” “Yes,” he says. “Didn’t stir.”

Not long after he tells her a wonderful offer has come for him to teach in his own field, with the opportunity to pursue his studies on the side. He hates to, but must leave her. She says “of course.”

Several years pass. Then she hears from him. He will be in town, to speak at the university there. (Is there a university in Mantova? Need to check.) He hopes to see her. She says yes, they will go to dinner. Which is where I see them.

Over dinner, he tells her of his friend, his companion, his house-and-life sharer, who is male. He is gay.

She feels an immense surge of relief. It was not age, after all. It was gender. So, end of story. I look away.

But when I look back he is motioning to his plate, he fills his fork, she leans slightly to him and he puts his own fork into her mouth. She smiles and swallows. So casual, so intimate – my story falls in shreds, somewhat like the paintings on the walls around us. Another story begins to take its place.

–Jane Durrell

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