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THE HEART OF FLORENCE

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By Yarrott Benz

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The Montréal Review, January 2013

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Roofs of Florence/Stairs of Siena (1976), Yarrott Benz

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It was Lee Leffert who convinced my parents that I should be taken seriously as an artist. He was the bachelor brother of the next-door neighbors on Tyne Boulevard in Nashville. Tall, athletic, and erudite, Lee visited his family once a year from the Midwest, where he was the founder and headmaster of an exclusive private school. The Lefferts were prominent people, and their house and yard were kept with the precision of a miniature White House. Even as a small child, I was mesmerized. I watched the Lefferts from our yard, with my knees locked and my thumb in my mouth. Life on our side of the fence felt dreary, and Lee Leffert tossed me a rope to a magical possibility. From a distance, it would look like a man throwing a rope to a boy barely treading water. From a distance, it would look that way. Until the boy speaks.

I first remember him from when I was in middle school. He showed interest in me when I was in the eighth grade, and he invited himself over to visit with my mother and me. He said to her that he was keeping an eye on me and at one point suggested that I might develop my talents better at his school. Luckily, it was an idea that neither of my parents thought feasible, given the cost of room and board and the fact that they were already paying three other tuitions for my siblings. Nevertheless, Lee Leffert continued to watch my progress and insisted on our meeting once a year during his visits next door.

My mother was not comfortable with him, complaining under her breath that she did not appreciate his familiarity with me, which she felt was unwarranted, not to mention uninvited. It was strange to her how he would casually sling a long leg over the arm of the wing chair in the living room, despite being dressed in a suit. He held court in our living room, asking me about myself and my progress while his face seemed to beam with interest. At the time, I was an emotional wreck at Montgomery Bell Academy , and I tried hard to conceal that I was struggling, even lying to him about my grades. God knows I did not need two schools breathing down my neck.

When I was college-age, we began to meet alone. He announced to me privately that he was afraid that the family's focus on my brother's fragile health would ruin my chances of developing into the artist that I should be. He told me that I needed to make decisions that would benefit me. I had no idea what he meant. He was right that I was in a fog. When confronted by my brother's tragedy unfolding at home, the notion of putting together a plan for my own future felt selfish, if not impossible.

During my senior year in college, Lee wrote me with an offer to take me on a trip to Europe for two months that he was making in the following summer, 1976, with a handful of his students. The trip would consist of two weeks in London , a month in Italy, and finally two more weeks in Switzerland . In London , he was planning to see performances of opera, ballet, and theater every day. This would make a splendid first trip abroad, he said, and he was sure it would be beneficial to me. He was so sure of its potential importance in my life, he said he would pay my way.

How could I possibly say no?

At this point, I was living on my own in my own apartment, so my parents let me make my own decision. The big question, though, was how can I leave Nashville when my brother is so ill? But Charley looked me in the eyes and said, "We've all been held hostage by my aplastic anemia long enough. I want you to go on this trip, Yarrott."

Oddly, the afternoon before I left on the trip, my father called me to his office. He was vague on the phone and said he needed to talk to me in person. When I got there, he was tapping his fountain pen on a file folder, trying to put his words together. "There is something that doesn't feel right to me," he said. "Something about Lee. I don't quite understand why he has been so insistent on this trip for you. Don't get me wrong. You need to go off and see the world. But why is it so vital that it has to be with him? You're a young guy; you still look a lot younger than your twenty-one years. Lee's a middle-aged bachelor. Do you see where I'm going with this?"

Man, Dad is so right about Lee. Why am I doing this? But I played down his concern. "Come on, Dad. I don't think there's anything to be worried about. Even if Lee did try to pull something on me that was sexual in nature, I can handle it. Don't worry." I swear if Lee pulls anything on me, I'll knee him in the crotch.

"Well, I just needed to make sure your eyes are open. No offense, okay?"

"Oh, Dad, no offense taken. I really appreciate your concern." My God, what if he's right? What if Lee is a lecherous wolf in Mr. Chips' clothing? What have I gotten myself into?

On June 20, 1976, I flew to Chicago and met the group at the British Airways gate at O'Hare Airport. Lee and I had two seats together near the front of the 747. The students were enjoying their own private conversations in the back part of the plane. After takeoff, Lee replaced his shoes with his own slippers, pulled down two red plaid blankets from the overhead bin, and nestled into his armrest, leaning in my direction. "Let me talk to you about discipline, Yarrott." Lee pulled out three small, leather-bound books from his valise on the floor. "I read fifteen minutes of each of these every day. Every day of my life. I've been doing it since I began studies at Cambridge in 1945. Here, look." Lee opened the three books, one in Latin, one in ancient Greek, and one in Hebrew, and pointed to the stains, pencil marks, and creases from thirty years of daily usage.

I tightened my grip on my armrest. "You speak all three of those languages?"

"And two more, Italian and French."

"Gosh. Uh, what do you get out of reading ancient languages every day? What do they say to you?"

"You've never read Plato, Yarrott? You say your major is art history and yet you've never read Plato? What kind of education can you call that?"

"I guess a sorry one." Had we suddenly hit some turbulence?

"Well, it is never too late to start a good thing. Here, take a look at this." He pushed the dog-eared volume into my hand and instructed me to open it very carefully. Instead of leafing through it and being inspired, I felt like I was inspecting someone's yellow toenails. I held it for what I thought was enough time to be polite and handed it back.

"Impressive," I said perkily.

"I know it is. The knowledge can be yours too, if you allow it in." I had a sinking feeling that I had just made a big mistake by coming on the trip. Here was yet another moment in my education that made me feel stupid.

The airplane landed in London the next morning during a foggy drizzle. The hotel on Leicester Square was World War II era and threadbare. It was unattractive, but it was in a location convenient to the theaters. Lee and I had rooms on different floors. Agreeing to meet up for dinner in the afternoon, I went straight to my room, unpacked, and filled the bathtub. I lay in the water looking at the room's mismatched decor, and thought hard on the fact that I was now so far away from home, from Charley, from Mother and Dad. I began to feel guilty that I had flown so far away from them. Lying back in the water, I tried to relax and put into order all the pieces that got me there in that tub in that hotel room in London . This will be good. Look around. Smell, touch, taste, and listen. Learn. I dried myself off with the thin waffle of cotton and spread the towel out neatly on the rod so it would not mildew, like I did at home. I slipped into the soft bed and drifted off.

In the dark room, I woke up suddenly to someone pounding on my door. I could not remember where I was. My travel alarm glowing next to the bed said six o'clock. PM or AM?

"Yarrott? Are you in there?" I recognized Lee Leffert's voice. Oh, God, I was supposed to meet them for an early dinner at five-thirty.

"Yes, Lee. I'm sorry. I fell asleep. Can you wait a second?"

"Well, I guess I don't have a choice, now do I?" He sounded exasperated. Stumbling through the room, I put my clothes back on and opened the door while shoving my shirttail into my pants. "God, I'm sorry, Lee. I fell asleep."

"Well, I've told the students to wait in the lobby, so we need to hurry. You mustn't hold us up again."

Over the next two weeks in London , I was punctual without fail as we attended four operas, two symphonies, three ballets, and six theater productions. The daytimes were mine to spend as I liked: seeing museums, or walking along the streets and neighborhoods. The drizzle rarely let up, but I learned to enjoy the interior life of London , stopping for cake and tea and occasionally striking up conversations with strangers. My time with Lee was kept to a minimum, as we only met for dinner and performances. But he always seemed to be annoyed with me, despite the fact that I did not repeat my initial failure.

The day before we flew to Italy, he invited me to his room for a chat. I dreaded the hour we were to meet. "Yes, Yarrott. I asked you here because I'm a little concerned about something."

"Gosh, Lee, I'm all ears."

"To get to the point, I've been watching you and I'm concerned about you. I would like to ask you some questions. Will you allow me?"

"Of course, Lee. I'm sorry you've been concerned. What would you like to know?"

"Well, to be perfectly blunt, Yarrott, you seem, well, undersexed to me. You don't act like you've had much physical contact with other bodies. What is your experience so far?"

Why the hell is he asking me that? I don't want to get that close to him. This makes me really uncomfortable. I shifted in the chair and thought about the best way to answer this. He doesn't know that I'm gay. I wonder what he feels about homosexuality. My mouth suddenly went dry. "I've had more sex than you think. I probably started later than most guys because I lived at home until two years ago. But I've been making up for lost time."

"And exactly what is it that you have done with other people? You don't mind that I ask, do you?"

Jesus Christ. Why is this his business? "No, I'm an adult. I can handle the questions. Well, I guess you might say everything. Oral. Genital. Everything. Some people I've liked and some I haven't. I'm not seeing anyone right now."

He pursed his lips to think, and this was followed by a long moment of silence. "Well, I have to ask you: do you like young women more than you like young men?"

My heart started pounding so loudly I was afraid he could hear it across the room. I suddenly became very hot in my jacket and turned bright red. I am proud about who I am, damn it. I will not lie. Too bad if he decides that his interest in my welfare has been a waste of time because I am gay. That is his goddamn problem. "I like men, Lee. I like men better than women. I'm gay, Lee."

"Oh, I thought so."

"You did?"

"Of course. People with your interests in art and culture; people with your, uh, sensitivity to things, usually are. It's no great thing." Picking up his books again, "Here, look at Plato for example. He even encourages the sensual bonds between males."

"So you are.okay with it?"

He laughed, "Indeed. Let me tell you some of the other wise secrets that I know from studying the classics. It is proven that human beings are happier and live longer if they have body contact with other human beings on a regular basis. Body hugs are proven to be the best method."

"Body hugs?"

"Yes, let me show you. Stand here in front of me." I immediately felt wary. Here I am in Lee Leffert's room, alone, and he wants to give me a body hug, whatever that is. What have I gotten myself into? Obediently, I rose and stood next to him with my arms at my sides.

"Not like that, boy." He took my arms and pulled them around his back and then grabbed me so tightly that it was hard to breathe.

"Now rub my back up and down. Firmly and deeply. Down, that's right. Keep going down." I stopped when I felt his belt through his jacket. "What are you so afraid of, boy?" He pulled away and stared at my face with a look of great concern. "I say, why are you so.uptight? This is exactly what I thought was wrong with you. You are afraid of human contact."

"I really don't think I agree with you, Lee. I love hugging people."

"Not like this." He rubbed his cheeks on mine pushing the side of his face up and down on mine with his whiskers scratching my skin. I pulled away but he grabbed my head and held it while he pressed away.

"The face is the most sensitive part of the body, even more than your penis. See how it unnerves you? Now, what would you do if I was to press against that, huh?"

"I'd feel really uncomfortable if you did that."

He pulled away and sat down in his chair. "As I thought, Yarrott. You are literally suffering from too little physical, bodily, sensual contact from other human beings. You chafe when you should be enjoying it, even getting aroused. That, in fact, would be most appropriate."

I sat down, so relieved that he had stopped I became giddy. I did not want to insult him. After all, he had made this trip possible for me, and if there is anything I cannot stand, it is an ingrate. "Thank you for showing me that. It gives me a lot to think about."

"Yes, think about that and consider reading the classics once a day. Furthermore, you could do with a little more exercising. Were you on a sports team of any kind?"

I nodded my head from side to side, embarrassed by my lack of physical, masculine enterprise.

"At the ballet tonight, our last night in England, I want you to closely examine the physique of the male dancers of The Royal Ballet. I want you to study their musculature, especially their buttocks and thighs. Then I want you to examine your own tonight in the mirror. I notice that your firmness needs to be improved."

He's right. Who would want to have sex with me? He's right. I'm a pathetic excuse for a man.

"All right, Yarrott. That should conclude our little talk. I would like you to become the best you can be, mentally and physically. For the rest of the trip, we will be sharing rooms together. I think you can use the guidance."

Uh - oh.

* * *

Flying to Rome the next morning and taking the train to Florence thoroughly changed the world around us. I had never experienced life in a foreign language before, and it was exhausting and overwhelming. I had to suddenly think more. I could not take anything for granted. I observed every action and heard every sound around me and struggled to remember the words and their meanings.

My brain found refuge in letting my eyes rest on the waiter at the pensione. The handsome Edoardo was an enigma, with one foot in the modern world and the other in a medieval feudal system. It was hard to tell what Edoardo actually felt about anything, because his behavior toward the guests was old-world and deferential. The guests were always right and the servant's opinion was inconsequential. Since I spoke no Italian, our conversations ended abruptly when we reached the end of his tiny list of English words. I learned molto grazie and used it much too often; usually as a nervous, obsequious gesture, as every conversation we had ended prematurely and awkwardly.

In his body and face, Edoardo was every bit a Florentine, and he was stunning.

With a sharp blade of a nose, full red lips, and black hair that framed his face in waves, I saw his likeness in frescoes all over Florence . I found him lurking in the background scene on a wall by Ghirlandaio. He peered out, amused, in the Uffizi, as a terracotta bust by Donatello. I even saw him in the face of Riccardo Muti, the dashing young director of the Florence Symphony. Edoardo's likeness stood behind counters in shops selling fine leather goods, embroidered linens, and heavy mosaic tables. I saw it in after-dinner walks with male friends, arm in arm, sweaters thrown over their shoulders, slowly making their way through the crowd. Edoardo was everywhere.

I desperately wanted to talk to him about things other than historic churches and museums, but without a common tongue, my desire was useless. I settled for eye contact as he maneuvered fried zucchini blossoms and lemons onto my dinner plate. The engaging expressions on his face were easily the most intriguing communication at mealtime. The teenagers in the group were hardly conversationalists. They had only college ahead, and rebellion on their minds. That left Lee and me alone to glance awkwardly at each other across the table.

Edoardo carefully placed a flattened piece of brown breaded veal in the middle of my empty white plate. I think he raised an eyebrow at me. Did he raise an eyebrow? He did, didn't he? Suffering an absence of friendly contact and desperate for company, I began to confuse reality with wishful thinking.

" Lei vuole un pezzo di limone, signore? " he politely asked.

I looked into his face, smiled mischievously, and raised my own eyebrow. I tried to linger on the one syllable and carry it with meaning, " Si-i-i-i, Edoardo.per favore...one piece.and grazie mo-olto ."

Later, in our room, Lee put down his Latin and looked at me with a knowing frown. "You're making a fool of yourself with the waiter. Keep it up and even the students will notice it."

"I don't know what you mean, Lee. I'm just being friendly."

"Don't be. Patrons do not behave like that. It looks foolish."

"I'm from a more democratic generation. He and I probably have more in common than you think."

"Don't be ridiculous, Yarrott. If indeed Edoardo is flirting with you, he's doing it purely out of a mercenary motive. He thinks you will give him a sizable tip when you leave. That's if he notices you at all."

When a stagnant heat had settled on the city one day, Lee asked me to help him carry cans of Coca-Cola from a corner bar for everyone. We slowly approached the pensione and he jabbed my side, pointing to the access alley running down the side of the building. A young man was helping a woman and a little girl into a small car. Picking up the child, he kissed her, then handed her through the window to her mother in the car. It was Edoardo and the woman appeared to be his wife; the child, their daughter.

Under his breath, Lee said, "See? His family. Like I said. He only wants a larger tip from you, if he wants anything at all."

"Maybe you're right," I said.

It was the next morning that Lee suddenly performed his daily exercises in a jockstrap and nothing else. Lying on the floor on his back, stretching his arms over his head, his long body took up the majority of the floor space. I stepped over him on my way to the bathroom and wondered why he suddenly had stopped wearing his gym shorts. He had the intensity of focus of a very competitive diver about to bounce dramatically off the board, except that he was flat on the floor. With his knees locked and his feet pointed, he drew his legs up over his head and slowly continued his arc until his toes touched his fingers in the far distance. Given Lee's vast confidence, I could not take my eyes off his flabby, blushing ass hovering in the air over his otherwise bone-white body. I kept thinking that Plato did not quite have this in mind when he wrote about the glories of the male physique.

I acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened and went about my business, folding maps and writing postcards, except that I now sat at the desk, facing away from him.

The signora sang as she glided around the table, lowering in the center the ceramic pitchers of coffee and milk. "Buon giorno, miei amici! Spero una bella giornata. Have you fine things to do today?"

" Si, grazie," I said. "I am going to Santa Maria Novella today. I studied it in college."

"Oh, Signor Benz. That is a fine church. My parents were married in one of the chapels. Look for the fresco of La Trinit à by Masaccio. I was baptized beneath it. Tell me what you think of it tonight at cena!" She moved to the other tables and continued her musical chatter with the teenagers.

"Wow, imagine that, Lee. I can't imagine that kind of family history."

Lee was not listening. After the signora was a safe distance away at another table, he whispered to me, "You may be wondering why I am no longer doing my exercises in my clothes."

I whispered back, "No, not at all. Do as you please." I was stunned that he opened the topic here, in the dining room, with others sitting at tables only a few feet away.

"I believe, and I am one hundred percent certain of this, Yarrott, that you need proximity to a man's nakedness. I'm sure of it. You are so inhibited I find it appalling. You need to explore another man's flesh, and I am the one to teach you."

I raised my voice and looked away from him. "You know, Lee, I have wanted to see Santa Maria Novella for the longest time, since I studied it four years ago."

"You are starving for physical touch. Aching for it. Look at you, so sadly rigid."

"Gosh, I can't believe that I'm actually going to see something of Alberti's today."

"Yarrott. Stop your nervous chatter and listen to me." At that moment, something in me broke. Politeness, deference, passivity: whatever it was, it broke.

"No, Lee," I shot back. "You have to listen to me." My mouth dried up and I stuttered, "Wh-what you do with your own body and your own n-nakedness is your business, but don't involve me in it. I don't want to kn-know. You are the age of my f-father. This is wrong. B-back off. Do you hear me?"

He paused for a long, terrifying moment. His normally white, remote face turned red and angry. "How dare you speak to me like that! Shall I remind you who is paying your way here?"

I was suddenly jealous of the teenagers at the other table, laughing with each other and oblivious to the machinations of a dirty old man. We had just finished our fourth week of the trip and had four more to go. I thought of what Charley had said to me before I left: "I want you to see the world outside Nashville, Yarrott."

The world with Lee Leffert had just become a place I had no interest in seeing. I remembered the conversation I had with Dad, when he called me to his office.

"Come on, Dad. I don't think there's anything to be worried about. Even if Lee did try to pull something on me that was sexual in nature, I can handle it. Don't you worry." I wished Dad were in Italy with me to stop this fiasco. I did not know what to do about Lee, his anger, and his mental manipulation. I did not know what to do about my expenses. I did not know how to change the plans that were already in motion. I was suddenly very scared.

Heat rose off me in waves. I felt myself dripping with sweat under my shirt. I felt I was emotionally unhinged and about to use fists as my next ammunition. Lee's face was white again. His anger had subsided as mine had erupted. Carefully folding the linen napkin with my shaking hands, I dropped it on the table and stalked out of the dining room. I was sure, out of the corner of my eye, that the teenagers had watched me get upset. I passed the creeping glass elevator and hurried up the stone steps to our room to find my wallet and passport. The matching brocades of the bedspreads and drapery were no longer elegant, but conceited and authoritative. Down the corridor, the lingering scent of the potted gardenia had become funeral-sweet and sickening. I let the heavy glass door at the entrance slam behind me and angrily pushed through the crowded piazza, an ugly tangle of cameras, backpacks, and purses.

On a side street I had not used before, I thought good, let me get lost so I can finally be safe by myself . Through residential neighborhoods I found my way to the wall around Florence , beyond which I could see hills in the distance. I was definitely coming unhinged. Keep walking, Yarrott. Walk it off. Walk until you feel better, until you figure out what to do. I calmed myself down by counting the doorways opening onto the narrow sidewalk. Housewives by the dozens were leaving their apartments, swinging empty cloth sacks to shop at the big open market down the road. Passing the doorway of a corner store, I smelled the combination of fresh fruit and scented boxes of laundry detergent. It reminded me of home in Nashville , the security of my parents, and the rational routines of each day when I lived with them. There is security found in the predictable. Dad left work at seven o'clock. Mother planned meals for the day. I headed off to class. I felt scattered now, at my wit's end with Lee on this trip. I was somersaulting in the air with no idea where I would land. Keep your eye on the sidewalk, Yarrott. Walk, count, walk.

How would I cobble together the money for a room at another pensione ? How would I buy a plane ticket to get home? How would I explain what had just happened? Walking, walking, it occurred to me I had a duty to keep my mouth shut. If my parents knew what was going on here, they would be disgusted and horrified.

They would see this as one more tremendous disappointment in their already troubled lives. One more problem, when it should have been something to celebrate. On a rustic hillside road with fields in front of houses and chickens in the fields, I could see Florence fanning out in the distance, a pale umber city under a blue sky. It stood static, quiet, and calm. It looked safe.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I let Lee have his way. I can go home and not say anything about it to anyone. Who would know besides me? I wouldn't have to embarrass Mother and Dad or the Lefferts. No one would know. But how can I do those things with him? My God. He is a sixty-year-old man. But, technically, I am now an adult. Then why do I feel like I'm being molested? Aren't I too old to be psychologically damaged by the situation? I'll just have to take it in stride.like Jane Fonda in Klute . Remember? Jane reads her watch over the guy's back while she fakes an orgasm. That's it. That's how I'll do it.

* * *

At the moment Lee moved his hand across my leg, a screen unrolled across my eyes and Edoardo filled it completely. The hour spent that afternoon in the brocaded room with the shutters closed was not spent with Lee, but with Edoardo on a beach along some coast of Italy . The shower I took afterward washed sand from my feet and salt from my hair.

That evening at eight o'clock, I arrived promptly in the dining room wearing my jacket and took my seat while Edoardo moved from table to table, spooning out a delicate salmon risotto. When I caught his eye he smiled, as usual. I nodded and mouthed quietly, just to myself, " Grazie, Edoardo. Molto grazie."

***

A visual artist for several decades, Yarrott Benz has exhibited his work extensively on the East Coast and in Italy  and articles about his work have appeared in  The New York Times, New York MagazineThe Philadelphia Inquirer, among other publications in the United States, Italy and Australia, and he has been the subject of interviews on National Public Radio's program Fresh Air,   RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana) and ARD (German Public Radio). He teaches in Los Angeles, where he now lives. The Heart of Florence is an excerpt from an unpublished memoir, The Bone Bridge.

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