For J.T. and M.P.
In old Italian, Monticello means “little mountain.” My father, Sicilian and Barese, never told me this, the origin of our last name. Instead, I learned it from a childhood crush, who once addressed a letter to me, “Dear Little Mountain,” and signed it, “The boy whose name doesn’t mean anything.” When we were kids, the boy whose name doesn’t mean anything had a high voice and very blue eyes, and he was often mad at me for being difficult–flighty and flirtatious, anxious and needy, at turns wholly exposed and deeply secretive. For months at a time, he would stop talking to me, and I would shove notes into his locker asking, “What did I do this time?” But now I think I know. I think the boy whose name doesn’t mean anything cared for me at a steep cost, as most who care for me do. Ask my husband. Ask him whose name means “one who cleaned the thickened cloth.”
Take out your spare change and turn a nickel to its tail side. I promise not to make a self-deprecating joke about my worth.
Thomas Jefferson named his Charlottesville, Virginia house Monticello. He remodeled the domed masterpiece several times, even during his Presidency, tearing it down and rebuilding it, the slave quarters on Mulberry Row facing a grand work-in-progress.
Jefferson lived deeply in conflict with himself, as history tells us. He condemned slavery but likely fathered children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, but was a terrible orator. Accounts from John Adams and other contemporaries sensed that Jefferson was caught between reality and a competing ideology, a rational or emotional definition of humanity.
But when in love, overtaken by emotion, Jefferson gave voice to the conflict. In 1786, he wrote a letter to British artist Maria Cosway, the married woman Jefferson loved desperately for a season after his own wife’s death. In the letter, as a literary device, he writes a dialogue between his head and heart:
Head: Well, friend, you seem to be in a pretty trim.
Heart: I am indeed the most wretched of all earthly beings. Overwhelmed with grief, every fibre of my gram distended beyond its natural powers to bear, I would willingly meet whatever catastrophe should leave me no more to feel or fear.
The boy whose name doesn’t mean anything’s last name actually means “son of Paul.” I think of the apostle, and the Beatle, and the boy in college whom I kissed and knocked teeth on a snowy night, after a sweaty concert. If we still wrote letters, I would ask about this. I would ask about Paul.
Six years and 219 pages. That’s how long the boy whose name doesn’t mean anything and I wrote letters.
Together, they form the dense and rocky landscape of our mid-twenties, the seismic shifts of two small continents crashing into each other, then sliding silently away, leaving the shapes we carved out of the other when we finally drifted too far. Six years of avalanches, fires, ice melts. To comb the pages now still feels risky–summits of insight airless and long-viewed, dark, undetectable crevasses of self-loathing, wild slides into what sometimes felt like love, but was only the exhilaration that comes with fear, like altitude sickness, like just before plummeting from a great height.
“An intimate letter has no end at all.” –Emily Post
Here is a memory: The boy whose name doesn’t mean anything chasing me around the preschool classroom in the basement of the Bonner Presbyterian church on a Big Wheels firetruck, threatening to kiss me. I ran and shrieked like the noontime siren that sounded every Wednesday, jumping into the pile of girls playing with the plastic telephone. One girl dialed and another answered, and we all imitated our mothers.
Mrs. Blackman, her frizzy gray hair a middle-aged halo of calm, made the boy whose name doesn’t mean anything sit in time-out. From the group of girls, I watched his skinny white legs swing slowly from the stool in the corner. He sang faintly, This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York island. I tried to count to ten minutes by counting the seconds in each minute, sixty, then sixty more. Someone made the phone go brrring, and handed it to me, but I always found playing pretend boring. I always wanted it to be real.
Head: These are the eternal consequences of your warmth & precipitation. This is one of the scrapes into which you are ever leading us. You confess your follies indeed; but you still hug & cherish them; & and no reformation can be hoped, where there is no repentance.
Heart: Oh, my friend! this is no moment to unbraid my foibles. I am rent into fragments by the force of my grief! If you have any balm, pour it into my wounds; if none, do not harrow them by new torments. Spare me in this awful moment! At any other I will attend with patience your admonitions.
Head: On the contrary I never found that the moment of triumph with you was the moment of attention to my admonitions. While suffering under your follies, you may perhaps be made sensible of them, but, the paroxysm over, you fancy it can never return. Harsh therefore as the medicine may be, it is my office to administer it.
The little mountain is a mean drunk, a frequent crier, an accident-prone bleeder. Her husband of the thickened cloth cleanses her, too. Each wound carefully attended with his determination to love her from all angles, as only a steadfast introvert can do for a ravenous extrovert. The little mountain has a bottomless cave for his love and the cave is never full; it gapes open and sighs a sour wind. She sleeps restlessly in the elements, dreams of volcanic cores that quake and erupt and break off pieces of her, but wakes whole and cooled in her husband’s gentle arms.
Song lyrics sent from the boy whose name doesn’t mean anything: “Who wants something real/When you can have nothing?”
But this is why we name. To be sure of what’s real.
The little mountain and the boy whose name doesn’t mean anything made each other mixed CDs. They sent DVDs of favorite television shows arriving in packages with familiar handwriting. A few precious text messages sent over three time zones, saying, “You’ll never guess the song that makes me think of you,” or, “I’m eating a gluten-free macaroon in your honor.” A lifetime and six years of rewriting what we meant until we meant something else entirely, an indefinable feeling turning into a lyric first sung long ago.
One friend says my name reminds her of the mountain pose in yoga, the pose meant to open senses, alter perception through stillness.
Another friend says my name makes her think of the small, unrelenting shifts that produce what appears solid and permanent. “Stability as process,” she wrote. The mountain, too, is a work-in-progress.
I’ve been thinking about the son of Paul again, over a year since our last letter, since I married the one who cleaned the thickened cloth and took part of his name. Son of Paul. The son of one who alters the world. The one buried under legacy. The one who must name himself.
Heart: …But when I look back on the pleasures of which it is the consequence, I am conscious they were worth the price I am paying.
Here is another memory: When we were ten, our school had a kickball tournament in late spring, a reprieve for the kids who couldn’t sit still now that the sun was calling us into summer. The boy whose name doesn’t mean anything’s class played mine. On my last turn at the plate, I kicked the ball straight to him in center outfield. I already had leaden feet, and he could easily have thrown the ball to first base, getting me out and hearing his name called, maybe even chanted. But that’s not what he did. What he did was fold his bony body over the ball and hold it, and even when the boys started beating on him, he turned stony, absorbed the kicks and punches and spit, and didn’t let go until my foot touched home.