Although she had been around them her whole life, it was when she reached thirty-five that holding babies seemed to make her nervous—just at the beginning, a twinge of stage fright swinging up from the gut. “Adrienne, would you like to hold the baby? Would you mind?” Always these words from a woman her age looking kind and beseeching—a former friend, she was losing her friends to babble and beseech—and Adrienne would force herself to breathe deep. Holding a baby was no longer natural—she was no longer natural—but a test of womanliness and earthly skills. She was being observed. People looked to see how she would do it. She had entered a puritanical decade, a demographic moment—whatever it was—when the best compliment you could get was: You would make a terrific mother. The wolf whistle of the nineties.
So when she was at the Spearsons’ Labor Day picnic, and when Sally Spearson had handed her the baby, Adrienne had burbled at it as she would a pet, had jostled the child gently, made clicking noises with her tongue, affectionately cooing, “Hello punkinhead, hello my little punkinhead,” had reached to shoo a fly away and, amidst the smells of old grass and the fatty crackle of the barbecue, lost her balance when the picnic bench, dowels rotting in the joints, wobbled and began to topple her—the bench! The wobbly picnic bench was toppling her! And when she fell backward, spraining her spine—in the slowed quickness of this flipping world she saw the clayey clouds, some frozen faces, one lone star like the nose of a jet—and when the baby’s head hit the stone retaining wall of the Spearsons’ newly terraced yard and bled fatally into the brain, Adrienne went home shortly thereafter, after the hospital and the police reports, and did not leave her attic apartment for seven months, and there were fears, deep fears for her, on the part of Martin Porter, the man she had been dating, and on the part of almost everyone, including Sally Spearson who phoned tearfully to say that she forgave her, that Adrienne might never come out.
Those months were dark and cavernous with mourning. Martin Porter usually visited her bringing a pepper cheese or a Casbah couscous cup; he had become her only friend. He was divorced and worked as a research economist, though he looked more like a Scottish lumberjack—graying hair, red-flecked beard, a favorite flannel shirt in green and gold. He was getting ready to take a trip abroad. “We could get married,” he suggested. That way, he said, Adrienne could accompany him to northern Italy, to a villa in the Alps set up for scholars and academic conferences. She could be a spouse. They gave spouses studios to work in. Some studios had pianos. Some had desks or potter’s wheels. “You can do whatever you want.” He was finishing the second draft of a study of first world imperialism’s impact on third world monetary systems. “You could paint. Or not. You could not paint.”
She looked at him closely, hungrily, then turned away. She still felt clumsy and big, a beefy killer in a cage, in need of the thinning prison food.
“You love me, don’t you,” she said. She had spent the better part of seven months napping in a leotard, an electric fan blowing at her, her left ear catching the wind, capturing it there in her head, like the sad sea in a shell. She felt clammy and doomed. “Or do you just feel sorry for me?” She swatted at a small swarm of gnats that had appeared suddenly out of an abandoned can of Coke.
“I don’t feel sorry for you.”
“I feel for you. I’ve grown to love you. We’re grown ups here. One grows to do things.” He was a practical man. He often referred to the annual departmental cocktail party as “standing around getting paid.”
“I don’t think, Martin, that we can get married.”
“Of course we can get married. ” He unbuttoned his cuffs as if to roll up his sleeves.
“You don’t understand. Normal life is no longer possible for me. I’ve stepped off all the normal paths and am living in the bushes. I’m a bushwoman now. I don’t feel that I can have the normal things. Marriage is a normal thing. You need the normal courtship, the normal proposal.” She couldn’t think what else. Water burned her eyes. She waved a hand dismissively, and it passed through her field of vision like something murderous and huge.
“Normal courtship, normal proposal,” Martin said. He took off his shirt and pants and shoes. He lay on the bed in just his socks and underwear and pressed the length of his body against her. “I’m going to marry you, whether you like it or not.” He took her face into his hands and looked longingly at her mouth. “I’m going to marry you til you puke.”
They were met at Malpensa by a driver who spoke little English but who held up a sign that said VILLA HIRSCHBORN, and when Adrienne and Martin approached him, he nodded and said, “Hello, buon giorno. Signor Porter?” The drive to the villa took two hours, uphill and down, through the countryside and several small villages, but it wasn’t until the driver pulled up to the precipitous hill he called La Madre Vertiginoso, and the villa’s iron gates somehow opened automatically then closed behind them, it wasn’t until then, winding up the drive past the spectacular gardens and the sunny vineyard and the terraces of the stucco outbuildings, that it occurred to Adrienne that Martin’s being invited here was a great honor. He had won this thing, and he got to live here for a month.
“Does this feel like a honeymoon?” she asked him.
“A what? Oh, a honeymoon. Yes.” He turned and patted her thigh indifferently.
He was jet-lagged. That was it. She smoothed her skirt, which was wrinkled and damp. “Yes, I can see us growing old together,” she said, squeezing his hand. “In the next few weeks, in fact.” If she ever got married again, she would do it properly. The awkward ceremony, the embarrassing relatives, the cumbersome, ecologically unsound gifts. She and Martin had simply gone to City Hall, and then asked their family and friends not to send presents but to donate money to Greenpeace. Now, however, as they slowed before the squashed-nosed stone lions at the entrance of the villa, its perfect border of forget-me-nots and yews, its sparkling glass door, Adrienne gasped. Whales, she thought quickly. Whales got my crystal.
The upstairs “Principessa” room, which they were ushered into by a graceful, bilingual butler named Carlo, was elegant and huge—a piano, a large bed, dressers stenciled with festoons of fruit. There was maid service twice a day, said Carlo. There were sugar wafers, towels, mineral water and mints. There was dinner at eight, breakfast until nine. When Carlo bowed and departed, Martin kicked off his shoes and sank into the ancient, tapestried chaise. “I’ve heard these ‘fake’ quattrocento paintings on the wall are fake for tax purposes only,” he whispered. “If you know what I mean.”
“Really,” said Adrienne. She felt like one of the workers taking over the Winter Palace. Her own voice sounded booming. “You know, Mussolini was captured around here. Think about it.”
Martin looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“That he was around here. That they captured him. I don’t know. I was reading the little book on it. Leave me alone.” She flopped down on the bed. Martin was changing already. He’d been better when they were just dating, with the pepper cheese. She let her face fall deep into the pillow, her mouth hanging open like a dog’s, and then she slept until six, dreaming that a baby was in her arms but that it turned into a stack of plates, which she had to juggle, tossing them into the air.
A loud sound awoke her. A falling suitcase. Everyone had to dress for dinner, and Martin was yanking things out, groaning his way into a jacket and tie. Adrienne got up, bathed and put on pantyhose which, because it had been months since she had done so, twisted around her leg like the stripe on a barber pole.
“You’re walking as if you’d torn a ligament,” said Martin, locking the door to their room, as they were leaving.
Adrienne pulled at the knees of the hose, but couldn’t make them work. “Tell me you like my skirt, Martin, or I’m going to have to go back in and never come out again.”
“I like your skirt. It’s great. You’re great. I’m great,” he said, like a conjugation. He took her arm and they limped their way down the curved staircase (Was it sweeping? Yes! It was sweeping!) to the dining room, where Carlo ushered them in to find their places at the table. The seating arrangement at the tables would change nightly. Carlo said in a clipped Italian accent, “to assist the cross-pollination of ideas.”
“Excuse me?” said Adrienne.
There were about thirty-five people, all of them middle aged, with the academic’s strange, mixed expression of merriment and weariness. “A cross between flirtation and a fender bender,” Martin had described it once. Adrienne’s place was at the opposite side of the room from him, between a historian writing a book on a monk named Jaocim de Flore and a musicologist who had devoted his life to a quest for “the earnest andante.” Everyone sat in elaborate wooden chairs, the backs of which were carved with gargoylish heads that poked up from behind either shoulder of the sitter, like a warning.
“De Flore,” said Adrienne, at a loss, turning from her carpaccio to the monk man. “Doesn’t that mean ‘of the flower’?” She had recently learned that disaster meant “bad star” and she was looking for an opportunity to brandish and bronze this tidbit in conversation.
The monk man looked at her. “Are you one of the spouses?”
“Yes,” she said. She looked down then back up. “But then so is my husband.”
“You’re not a screenwriter, are you?”
“No,” she said. “I’m a painter. Actually more of a printmaker. Actually, more of a—right now I’m in transition.”
He nodded and dug back into his food. “I’m always afraid they’re going to start letting screenwriters in here.”
There was an arugula salad, and osso bucco for the main course. She turned now to the musicologist. “So you usually find them insincere? The andantes?” She looked quickly out over the other heads to give Martin a fake and girlish wave.
“It’s the use of the minor seventh,” sniffed the musicologist. “So fraudulent and replete.”
“If the food wasn’t so good, I’d leave now,” she said to Martin. They were lying in bed, in their carpeted skating rink of a room. It could be weeks, she knew, before they’d have sex here. “So fraudulent and replete,” she said in a high nasal voice the likes of which Martin had heard only once before, in a departmental meeting chaired by an embittered, interim chair who did imitations of colleagues not in the room. “Can you even use the word replete like that?”
“As soon as you get settled in your studio, you’ll feel better,” said Martin, beginning to fade. He groped under the covers to find her hand and clasp it.
“I want a divorce,” whispered Adrienne.
“I’m not giving you one,” he said, bringing her hand up to his chest and placing it there, like a medallion, like a necklace of sleep, and then he began softly to snore, the quietest of radiators.
They were given bagged lunches and told to work well. Martin’s studio was a modern glass cube in the middle of one of the gardens. Adrienne’s was a musty stone hut twenty minutes farther up the hill and out onto the wooded headland, along a dirt path where small darting lizards sunned. She unlocked the door with the key she had been given, went in, and immediately sat down and ate the entire bagged lunch—quickly, compulsively, though it was only nine-thirty in the morning. Two apples, some cheese, and a jam sandwich. “A jelly bread,” she said aloud, holding up the sandwich, scrutinizing it under the light.
She set her sketch pad on the work table and began a morning full of killing spiders and drawing their squashed and tragic bodies. The spiders were star shaped, hairy, and scuttling like crabs. They were fallen stars. Bad stars. They were earth’s animal try at heaven. Often she had to step on them twice—they were large and ran fast. Stepping on them once usually just made them run faster.
It was the careless universe’s work she was performing, death itchy, and about like a cop. Her personal fund of mercy for the living was going to get used up in dinner conversation at the villa. She had no compassion to spare, only a pencil and a shoe.
“Art trouvé?” said Martin, toweling himself dry from his shower, as they dressed for the evening cocktail hour.
“Spider trouvé,” she said. “A delicate, aboriginal dish.” Martin let out a howling laugh that alarmed her. She looked at him, then looked down at her shoes. He needed her. Tomorrow she would have to go down into town and find a pair of sexy Italian sandals that showed the cleavage of her toes. She would have to take him dancing. They would have to hold each other and lead each other back to love or they’d go nuts here. They’d grow mocking and arch and violent. One of them would stick a foot out, and the other would trip. That sort of thing.
At dinner she sat next to a medievalist who had just finished his sixth book on The Canterbury Tales.
“Sixth,” repeated Adrienne.
“There’s a lot there,” he said defensively.
“I’m sure,” she said.
“I read deep, ” he added. “I read hard.”
“How nice for you.”
He looked at her narrowly. “Of course, you probably think I should write a book about Cat Stevens.” She nodded neutrally. “I see,” he said.
For dessert Carlo was bringing in a white chocolate torte, and she decided to spend most of the coffee and dessert time talking about it. Desserts like these are born, not made, she would say. She was already practicing, rehearsing for courses. “I mean,” she said to the Swedish physicist on her left, “until today, my feeling about white chocolate, was: Why? What was the point? You might as well have been eating goddamn wax.” She had her elbow on the table, her hand up near her face, and she looked anxiously past the physicist to smile at Martin at the other end of the long table. She waved her fingers in the air like bug legs.
“Yes, of course,” said the physicist, frowning. “You must be—well, are you one of the spouses?”
She began in the mornings to gather with some of the other spouses—they were going to have little tank tops printed up—in the music room for exercise. This way she could avoid hearing words like Heideggerian and ideological at breakfast; it always felt too early in the morning for those words. The women pushed back the damask sofas, and cleared a space on the rug where all of them could do little hip and thigh exercises, led by the wife of the Swedish physicist. Up, down, up down.
“I guess this relaxes you,” said the white-haired woman next to her.
“Bourbon relaxes you,” said Adrienne. “This carves you.”
“Bourbon carves you,” said a redhead from Brazil.
“You have to go visit this person down in the village,” whispered the white haired woman. She wore a Spalding sporting goods T-shirt.
“Yes, what person?” asked the blonde.
The white-haired woman stopped and handed both of them a card from the pocket of her shorts. “She’s an American masseuse. A couple of us have started going. She takes lire or dollars, doesn’t matter. You have to phone a couple days ahead.”
Adrienne stuck the card in her waistband. “Thanks,” she said, and resumed moving her leg up and down like a toll gate.
For dinner there was tachino a la scala. “I wonder how you make this?” Adrienne said aloud.
“My dear,” said the French historian on her left. “You must never ask. Only wonder.” He then went on to disparage sub-altered intellectualism and dormant tropes.
“Yes,” said Adrienne, “dishes like these do have about them a kind of omnihistorical reality. At least it seems like that to me.” She turned quickly.
To her right sat a cultural anthropologist who had just come back from China where she had studied the infanticide.
“Yes,” said Adrienne. “The infanticide.”
“They are on the edge of something horrific there. It is the whole future, our future as well, and something terrible is going to happen to them. One feels it.”
“How awful,” said Adrienne. She could not do the mechanical work of eating, of knife and fork, up and down. She let her knife and fork rest against each other on the plate.
“A woman has to apply for a license to have a baby. Everything is bribes and rations. We went for hikes up into the mountains, and we didn’t see a single bird, a single animal. Everything, over the years, has been eaten.”
Adrienne felt a light weight on the inside of her arm vanish and return, vanish and return, like the history of something, like the story of all things. “Where are you from ordinarily?” asked Adrienne. She couldn’t place the accent.
“Munich,” said the woman. “Land of Oktoberfest.” She dug into her food in an exasperated way then turned back toward Adrienne to smile a little formally. “I grew up watching all these grown people in green felt throwing up in the street.”
Adrienne smiled back. This was how she would learn about the world, in sentences at meals; other people’s distillations amidst her own vague pain, dumb with itself. This, for her, would be knowledge—a shifting to hear, an emptying of her arms, other people’s experiences walking through the bare rooms of her brain, looking for a place to sit.
“Me?” she too often said, “I’m just a dropout from Sue Bennet College.” And people would nod politely and only sometimes ask, “Where’s that?”
The next morning in her room she sat by the phone and stared. Martin had gone to his studio; his book was going fantastically well, he said, which gave Adrienne a sick, abandoned feeling—of being unhappy and unsupportive—which made her think she was not even one of the spouses. Who was she? The opposite of a mother. The opposite of a spouse.
She was Spider Woman.
She picked up the phone, got an outside line, dialed the number of the masseuse on the card.
“Pronto,” said the voice on the other end.
“Yes, hello, per favore, park anglese?”
“Oh, yes,” said the voice. “I’m from Minnesota.”
“No, kidding,” said Adrienne. She lay back and searched the ceiling for talk. “I once subscribed to a haunted-house newsletter published in Minnesota,” she said.
“Yes,” said the voice a little impatiently. “Minnesota is full of haunted-house newsletters.”
“I once lived in a haunted house,” said Adrienne. “In college. Me and five roommates.”
The masseuse cleared her throat confidentially. “Yes. I was once called on to cast the demons from a haunted house. But how can I help you today?”
Adrienne said, “You were?”
“Were? Oh, the house, yes. When I got there, all the place needed was to be cleaned. So I cleaned it. Washed the dishes and dusted.”
“Yup,” said Adrienne. “Our house was haunted that way, too.”
There was a strange silence in which Adrienne, feeling something tense and moist in the room, began to fiddle with the bagged lunch on the bed, nervously pulling open the sandwiches, sensing that, if she turned just then, the phone cradled in her neck, the baby would be there, behind her, a little older now, a toddler, walked toward her in a ghostly way by her own dead parents, a nativity scene corrupted by error and dream.
“How can I help you today?” the masseuse asked again, firmly.
Help? Adrienne wondered abstractly, and remembered how in certain countries, instead of a tooth fairy, there were such things as tooth spiders. How the tooth spider could steal your children, mix them up, bring you a changeling child, a child that was changed.
“I’d like to make an appointment for Thursday,” she said. “If possible. Please.”
For dinner there was vongole in umido, the rubbery, wine-steamed meat prompting commentary about mollusk versus crustacean anatomy. Adrienne sighed and chewed. Over cocktails there had been a long discussion of peptides and rabbit tests.
“Now lobsters, you know, have what is called a hemi-penis,” said the man next to her. He was a marine biologist, an epidemiologist, or an anthropologist. She’d forgotten which.
“Hemi-penis.” Adrienne scanned the room a little frantically.
“Yes.” He grinned. “Not a term one particularly wants to hear in an intimate moment, of course.”
“No, ” said Adrienne, smiling back. She paused. “Are you one of the spouses?”
Someone on his right grabbed his arm, and he now turned in that direction to say why yes he did know Professor so-and-so . . . and wasn’t she in Brussels last year giving a paper at the hermeneutics conference?
There came castagne al porto and coffee. The woman to Adrienne’s left finally turned to her, placing the cup down on the saucer with a sharp clink.
“You know, the chef has AIDS,” said the woman.
Adrienne froze a little in her chair. “No, I didn’t know.” Who was this woman?
“How does that make you feel?”
“How does that make you feel?” She enunciated slowly, like a reading teacher.
“I’m not sure,” said Adrienne, scowling at her chestnuts. “Certainly worried for us if we should lose him.”
The woman smiled. “Very interesting.” She reached underneath the table for her purse and said, “Actually, the chef doesn’t have AIDS—at least not that I’m aware of. I’m just taking a kind of survey to test people’s reactions to AIDS, homosexuality and general notions of contagion. I’m a sociologist. It’s part of my research. I just arrived this afternoon. My name is Marie-Claire.”
Adrienne turned back to the hemi-penis man. “Do you think the people here are mean?” she asked.
He smiled at her in a fatherly way. “Of course,” he said. There was a long silence with some chewing in it.
“But the place is pretty as a postcard.”
“Yeah, well,” said Adrienne, “I never send those kinds of postcards. No matter where I am I always send the kind with the little cat jokes on them.”
He placed his hand briefly on her shoulder. “We’ll find you some cat jokes.” He scanned the room in a bemused way and then looked at his watch.
She had bonded in a state of emergency, like an infant bird. But perhaps it would be soothing, this marriage. Perhaps it would be like a nice warm bath. A nice warm bath in a tub flying off a roof.
At night she and Martin seemed almost like husband and wife, spooned against each other in a forgetful sort of love—a cold, still heaven through which a word or touch might explode like a moon, then disappear, unremembered. She moved her arms to place them around him, and he felt so big there, huge, filling her arms.
The white-haired woman who had given her the masseuse card was named Kate Spalding, the wife of the monk man, and in the morning she asked Adrienne to go jogging. They met by the lions, Kate once more sporting a Spalding T-shirt, and then they headed out over the gravel, toward the gardens. “It’s pretty as a postcard here, isn’t it?” said Kate. Out across the lake the mountains seemed to preside over the minutiae of the terra cotta villages nestled below. It was May and the Alps were losing their snowy caps, nurses letting their hair down. The air was warming. Anything could happen.
Adrienne sighed. “But do you think people have sex here?”
“You mean casual sex? Among the guests?”
Adrienne felt annoyed. “Casual sex? No, I don’t mean casual sex. I’m talking about difficult, randomly profound. Sears and Roebuck sex. I’m talking marital.”
Kate laughed in a sharp, barking sort of way, which for some reason hurt Adrienne’s feelings.
Adrienne tugged on her socks. “I don’t believe in casual sex.” She paused. “I believe in casual marriage.”
“Don’t look at me,” said Kate. “I married my husband because I was deeply in love with him.”
“Yeah, well,” said Adrienne. “I married my husband because I thought it would be a great way to meet guys.”
Kate smiled now in a real way. Her white hair was grandmotherly, but her face was youthful and tan, and her teeth shone generous and wet, the creamy incisors curved as cashews.
“I’d tried the whole single thing but it just wasn’t working,” Adrienne added, running in place.
Kate stepped close and massaged Adrienne’s neck. Her skin was lined and papery. “You haven’t been to see Ilke from Minnesota yet, have you?”
Adrienne feigned perturbance. “Do I seem that tense, that lost, that…” and here she let her arms splay spastically. “I’m going tomorrow.”
“He was a beautiful child, didn’t you think?” In bed Martin held her until he rolled away, clasped her hand and fell asleep. At least there was that: a husband sleeping next to a wife, a nice husband sleeping close. It meant something to her. She could see how through the years it would gather power, its socially sanctioned animal comfort, its night life a dreamy dance about love. She lay awake and remembered when her father had at last grown so senile and ill that her mother could no longer sleep in the same bed with him—the mess, the smell—and had had to move him, diapered and rank, to the guest room next door. Her mother had cried, to say this farewell to a husband. To at last lose him like this, banished and set aside like a dead man, never to sleep with him again: she had wept like a baby. His actual death she took less hard. At the funeral she was grim and dry and invited everyone over for a quiet, elegant tea. By the time two years had passed, and she herself was diagnosed with cancer, her sense of humor had returned a little. “The silent killer,” she would say, with a wink. “The silent killer.” She got a kick out of repeating it, though no one knew what to say in response, and at the very end she kept clutching the nurses’ hems to ask, “Why is no one visiting me?” No one lived that close, explained Adrienne. No one lived that close to anyone.
Adrienne set her spoon down. “Isn’t this soup interesting?” she said to no one in particular. “Zup-pa mari-ta-ta!” Marriage soup. She decided it was perhaps a little like marriage itself: a good idea that, like all ideas, lived awkwardly on earth.
“You’re not a poetess, I hope,” said the English geologist next to her. “We had a poetess here last month, and things got a bit dodgy here for the rest of us.”
“Really.” After the soup there was risotto with squid ink.
“Yes. She kept referring to insects as ‘God’s typos’ and then she kept us all after dinner one evening so she could read from her poems, which seemed to consist primarily of the repeating line, ‘The hairy kiwi of his balls.’ ”
“Hairy kiwi,” repeated Adrienne, searching the phrase for a sincere andante. She had written a poem once herself. It had been called “Garbage Night in the Fog” and was about a long sad walk she’d taken once on garbage night.
The geologist smirked a little at the risotto, waiting for Adrienne to say something more, but she was now watching Martin at the other table. He was sitting next to the sociologist she’d sat next to the previous night, and as Adrienne watched she saw Martin glance, in a sickened way, from the sociologist, back to his plate, then back to the sociologist. “The cook?” he said loudly, then dropped his fork and pushed his chair from the table.
The sociologist was frowning. “You flunk,” she said.
“I’m going to see this masseuse tomorrow.” Martin was on his back on the bed, and Adrienne was straddling his hips, usually one of their favorite ways to converse. One of the Mandy Patinkin tapes she’d brought was playing on the cassette player.
“The masseuse. Yes, I’ve heard,” said Martin.
“Sure, they were talking about it at dinner last night.”
“Who was?” She was already feeling possessive, alone.
“Oh, one of them,” said Martin, smiling and waving his hand dismissively.
“Them,” said Adrienne coldly. “You mean one of the spouses, don’t you. Why are all the spouses here women? Why don’t the women scholars have spouses?”
“Some of them do, I think. They’re just not here.”
“Where are they?”
“Could you move,” he said irritably, “you’re sitting on my groin.”
“Fine,” she said and climbed off.
The next morning she made her way down past the conical evergreens of the terraced hill—so like the grounds of a palace, the palace of a moody princess named Sophia or Giovanna—ten minutes down the winding path to the locked gate to the village. It had rained in the night, and snails, golden and mauve, decorated the stone steps, sometimes dead center, causing Adrienne an occasional quick turn of the ankle. A dance step, she thought. Modern and bent-kneed. Very Martha Graham. Don’t kill us. We’ll kill you. At the top of the final stairs to the gate she pressed the buzzer that opened it electronically, and then dashed down to get out in time. YOU HAVE THIRTY SECONDS, said the sign. TRENTA MINUTI SECONDI USCIRE. PRESTO! One needed a key to get back in from the village, and she clutched it like a charm.
She had to follow the Via San Carlo to Corso Magenta, past a hazelnut gelato shop and a bakery with wreaths of braided bread and muffins cut like birds. She pressed herself up against the buildings to let the cars pass. She looked at her card. The masseuse was above a farmacia, she’d been told, and she saw it now, a little sign that said, MASSAGGIO DELLA VITA. She pushed on the outer door and went up.
Upstairs through an open doorway, she entered a room lined with books: books on vegetarianism, books on healing, books on juice. A cockatiel, white with a red dot like a Hindu wife’s, was perched atop a picture frame. The picture was of Lake Como or Garda, though when you blinked it could also be a skull, a fissure through the center like a reef.
“Adrienne,” said a smiling woman in a purple peasant dress. She had big, frosted hair and a wide, happy face that contained many shades of pink. She stepped forward and shook Adrienne’s hand. “I’m Ilke.”
“Yes,” said Adrienne.
The cockatiel suddenly flew from its perch to land on Ilke’s shoulder. It pecked at her big hair, then stared at Adrienne, accusingly.
Ilke’s eyes moved quickly between Adrienne’s own, a quick read, a radar scan. She then looked at her watch. “You can go into the back room now, and I’ll be with you shortly. You can take off all your clothes, also any jewelry—watches, or rings. But if you want you can leave your underwear on. Whatever you prefer.”
“What do most people do?” Adrienne swallowed in a difficult, conspicuous way.
Ilke smiled. “Some do it one way; some the other.”
“All right,” Adrienne said and clutched her pocketbook. She stared at the cockatiel. “I just wouldn’t want to rock the boat.”
She stepped carefully toward the back room Ilke had indicated, and pushed past the heavy curtain. Inside was a large alcove, windowless and dark, with one small bluish light coming from the corner. In the center was a table with a newly creased flannel sheet. Speakers were built into the bottom of the table, and out of them came the sound of eery choral music, wordless oohs and aahs in minor tones, with a percussive sibilant chant beneath it that sounded to Adrienne like, “Jesus is best, Jesus is best,” though perhaps it was “Cheese, I suspect.” Overhead hung a mobile of white stars, crescent moons and doves. On the blue walls were more clouds and snowflakes. It was a child’s room, a baby’s room, everything trying hard to be harmless and sweet.
Adrienne removed all her clothes, her earrings, her watch, her rings. She had already grown used to the ring Martin had given her, and so it saddened and exhilerated her to take it off, a quick glimpse into the landscape of adultery. Her other ring was a smokey quartz, which a palm reader in Milwaukee—a man dressed like a gym teacher and set up at a card table in a German restaurant—had told her to buy and wear on her right index finger for power.
“What kind of power?” she had asked.
“The kind that’s real,” he said. “What you’ve got here,” he said, waving around her left hand, pointing at the thin silver and turquoise she was wearing, “is squat.”
“I like a palm reader who dresses you,” she said later to Martin in the car on their way home. This was before the incident at the Spearson picnic, and things seemed not impossible then; she had wanted Martin to fall in love with her. “A guy who looks like Mike Ditka, but who picks out jewelry for you.”
“A guy who tells you you’re sensitive, and that you will soon receive cash from someone wearing glasses. Where does he come up with this stuff?”
“You don’t think I’m sensitive.”
“I mean the money and glasses thing,” he said. “And that gloomy bit about how they’ll think you’re a goner, but you’re going to come through and live to see the world go through a radical physical change.”
“That was gloomy,” she agreed. There was a lot of silence and looking at the night-lit highway lines, the fireflies hitting the windshield and smearing, all phosphorescent gold, as if the car were flying through stars. “It must be hard,” she said, “for someone like you to go out on a date with someone like me.”
“Why do you say that?” he’d asked.
She climbed up on the table, stripped of ornament and the power of ornament, and slipped between the flannel sheets. For a second she felt numb and scared, naked in a strange room, more naked even than in a doctor’s office, where you kept your jewelry on, like an odalisque. But it felt new to do this, to lead the body to this, the body with its dog’s obedience, its dog’s desire to please. She lay there waiting, watching the mobile moons turn slowly, half-revolutions, while from the speakers beneath the table came a new sound, an electronic, synthesized version of Brahms’s lullaby. An infant. She was to become an infant again. Perhaps she would become the Spearsons’ boy. He had been a beautiful baby.
Ilke came in quietly and appeared so suddenly behind Adrienne’s head, it gave her a start.
“Move back toward me,” whispered Ilke, “move back toward me,” and Adrienne shifted until she could feel the crown of her head grazing Ilke’s belly. The cockatiel whooshed in and perched on a nearby chair.
“Are you a little tense?” she said. She pressed both her thumbs at the center of Adrienne’s forehead. Ilke’s hands were strong, small, bony. Leathered claws. The harder she pressed the better it felt to Adrienne, all of her difficult thoughts unknotting and traveling out, up into Ilke’s thumbs.
“Breathe deeply,” said Ilke. “You cannot breathe deeply without it relaxing you.”
Adrienne pushed her stomach in and out.
“You are from the Villa Hirschborn, aren’t you?” Ilke’s voice was a knowing smile.
“I thought so,” said Ilke. “People are very tense up there. Rigid as boards.” Ilke’s hands moved down off Adrienne’s forehead, along her eyebrows to her cheeks, which she squeezed repeatedly, in little circles, as if to break the weaker capillaries. She took hold of Adrienne’s head and pulled. There was a dull, cracking sound. Then she pressed her knuckles along Adrienne’s neck. “Do you know why?”
“It is because they are over educated and can no longer converse with their own mothers. It makes them a little crazy. They have literally lost their mother tongue. So they come to me. I am their mother, and they don’t have to speak at all.”
“Of course they pay you.”
Adrienne suddenly fell into a long falling—of pleasure, of surrender, of glazed-eyed dying, a piece of heat set free in a room. Ilke rubbed Adrienne’s earlobes, knuckled her scalp like a hairdresser, pulled at her neck and fingers and arms, as if they were jammed things. Adrienne would become a baby, join all the babies, in heaven where they lived.
Ilke began to massage sandalwood oil into Adrienne’s arms, pressing down, polishing, ironing, looking, at a quick glimpse, like one of Degas’s laundresses. Adrienne shut her eyes again and listened to the music, which had switched from synthetic lullabyes to the contrapuntal sounds of a flute and a thunderstorm. With these hands upon her, she felt a little forgiven and began to think generally of forgiveness, how much of it was required in life: to forgive everyone, yourself, the people you loved, and then wait to be forgiven by them. Where was all this forgiveness supposed to come from? Where was this great inexhaustible supply?
“Where are you?” whispered Ilke. “You are somewhere very far.”
Adrienne wasn’t sure. Where was she? In her own head, like a dream; in the bellows of her lungs. What was she? Perhaps a child. Perhaps a corpse. Perhaps a fern in the forest in the storm; a singing bird. The sheets were folded back. The hands were all over her now. Perhaps she was under the table with the music, or in a musty corner of her own hip. She felt Ilke rub oil into her chest, between her breasts, out along the ribs, and circularly on the abdomen. “There is something stuck here,” Ilke said. “Something not working.” Then she pulled the covers back up. “Are you cold?” she asked, and though Adrienne didn’t answer, Ilke brought another blanket, mysteriously heated, and laid it across Adrienne. “There,” said Ilke. She lifted the blanket so that only her feet were exposed. She rubbed oil into her soles, the toes, something squeezed out of Adrienne, like an olive. She felt as if she would cry. She felt like the baby Jesus. The grown Jesus. The poor will always be with us. The dead Jesus. Cheese is the best. Cheese is the best.
At her desk in the outer room, Ilke wanted money. Thirty-five thousand lire. “I can give it to you for thirty thousand, if you decide to come on a regular basis. Would you like to come on a regular basis?” asked Ilke.
Adrienne was fumbling with her wallet. She sat down in the wicker rocker near the desk. “Yes,” she said. “Of course.”
Ilke had put on reading glasses and now opened up her appointment book to survey the upcoming weeks. She flipped a page, then flipped it back. She looked out over her glasses at Adrienne. “How often would you like to come?”
“Every day,” said Adrienne.
Ilke’s hoot worried Adrienne. “Every other day?” Adrienne peeped hopefully. Perhaps the massage had bewitched her, ruined her. Perhaps she had fallen in love.
Ilke looked back at her book and shrugged. “Every other day,” she repeated slowly as a way of holding the conversation still while she checked her schedule. “How about at two o’clock?”
“Monday, Wednesday and Friday?”
“Perhaps we can occasionally arrange a Saturday.”
“Okay. Fine.” Adrienne placed the money on the desk and stood up. Ilke walked her to the door and thrust her hand out formally. Her face had changed from its earlier pinks to a strange and shiny orange.
“Thank you,” said Adrienne. She shook Ilke’s hand, but then leaned forward and kissed her cheek; she would kiss the business out of this. “Good bye,” she said. She stepped gingerly down the stairs; she had not entirely returned to her body yet. She had to go slow. She felt a little like she had just seen God, but also a little like she had just seen a hooker. Outside she walked carefully back toward the villa, but first stopped at the gelato shop for a small dish of hazelnut ice cream. It was smooth, toasty, buttery, like a beautiful liqueur, and she thought how different it was from America, where so much of the ice cream now looked like babies had attacked it with their cookies.
“Well, Martin, it’s been nice knowing you,” Adrienne said smiling. She reached out to shake his hand with one of hers and pat him on the back with the other. “You’ve been a good sport. I hope there will be no hard feelings.”
“You’ve just come back from your massage,” he said a little numbly. “How was it?”
“As you would say, ’Relaxing.’ As I would say—well, I wouldn’t say.”
Martin led her to the bed. “Kiss and tell,” he said.
“I’ll just kiss,” she said, kissing.
“I’ll settle,” he said. But then she stopped and went into the bathroom to shower for dinner.
At dinner there was zuppa alia paesana and then salsicce alia griglia con spinaci. For the first time since they’d arrived, she was seated near Martin, who was catercorner to her left. He was seated next to another economist and was speaking heatedly with him about a book on labor division and economic policy. “But Wilkander ripped that theory off from Boyer!” Martin let his spoon splash violently into his zuppa before a waiter came and removed the bowl.
“Let us just say,” said the other man calmly, “that it was a sort of homage.”
“If that’s ‘homage,’ ” said Martin, fidgeting with his fork, “I’d like to do a little ‘homage’ on the Chase Manhattan Bank.”
“I think it was felt that there was sufficient looseness there to warrant further explication.”
“Right. And one’s twin sibling is simply an explication of the text.”
“Why not,” smiled the other economist, who was calm, probably a supply-sider.
Poor Martin, thought Adrienne. Poor Keynesian Martin, poor Marxist Martin, perspiring and red. “Left of Lenin?!” she had heard him exclaiming the other day to an agriculturalist. “Left of Lenin?! Left of the Lennon Sisters, you mean!” Poor godless, raised-an-atheist-in-Ohio Martin. “On Christmas,” he’d said to her once, “we used to go down to The Science Store and worship the Bunsen burners.”
She would have to find just the right blouse, just the right perfume, greet him on the chaise lounge with a bare shoulder and a purring, “Hello, Mister Man.” Take him down by the lake near the Sfondrata chapel and get him laid. Hire somebody. She turned to the scholar next to her, who had just arrived this morning.
“Did you have a good flight?” she asked. Her own small talk at dinner no longer shamed her.
“Flight is the word, ” he said. “I needed to flee my department, my bills, my ailing car. Come to a place that would take care of me.”
“This is it, I guess. Though they won’t fix your car. Won’t even discuss it, I’ve found.”
“I’m on a Guggenheim,” he said.
“How nice!” She thought of the museum in New York, and of a pair of earrings she had bought in the gift shop there but had never worn because they always looked broken, even though that was the way they were supposed to look.
“. . . but I neglected to ask the foundation for enough money. I didn’t realize what you could ask for. I didn’t ask for the same amount everyone else did, and so I received substantially less.”
Adrienne was sympathetic. “So instead of a regular Guggenheim, you got a little Guggenheim.”
“Yes,” he said.
“A Guggenheimy,” she said.
He smiled in a troubled sort of way. “Right.”
“So now you have to live in Guggenheimy town.”
He stopped pushing at a sausage with his fork. “Yes. I heard there would be wit here.”
She tried to make her lips curl, like his.
“Sorry,” he said. “I was just kidding.”
“Jet lag,” she said.
“Jetty laggy.” She smiled at him. “Baby talk. We love it.” She paused. “Last week of course we weren’t like this. You’ve arrived a little late.”
He was a beautiful baby. In the dark there was thumping, like tom-toms, and a piccolo high above it. She couldn’t look, because when she looked, it shocked her, another woman’s hands all over her. She just kept her eyes closed, and concentrated on surrender, on the restful invalidity of it. Sometimes she concentrated on being where Ilke’s hands were—at her feet, at the small of her back.
“Your parents are no longer living, are they?” Ilke said in the dark.
“Did they die young?”
“Medium. They died medium. I was a menopausal, afterthought child.”
“Do you want to know what I feel in you?”
“I feel a great and deep gentleness. But I also feel that you have been dishonored.”
“Dishonored?” So Japanese. Adrienne liked the sound of it.
“Yes. You have a deeply held fear. Right here.” Ilke’s hand went just under Adrienne’s ribcage.
Adrienne breathed deeply, in and out. “I killed a baby,” she whispered.
“Yes, we have all killed a baby—there is a baby in all of us. That is why people come to me, to be reunited with it.”
“No, I’ve killed a real one.”
Ilke was very quiet and then she said, “You can do the side-lying now. You can put this pillow under your head; this other one between your knees.” Adrienne rolled awkwardly onto her side. Finally Ilke said, “This country, its pope, its church, makes murderers of women. You must not let it do that to you. Move back toward me. That’s it.”
That’s not it, thought Adrienne, in this temporary dissolve, seeing death and birth, seeing the beginning and then the end, how they were the same quiet black, same nothing ever after: everyone’s life appeared in the world like a movie in a room. First dark, then light, then dark again. But it was all staggered so that somewhere there was always light.
That’s not it. That’s not it, she thought. But thank you.
When Adrienne left that afternoon, seeking sugar in one of the shops, she moved slowly, blinded by the angle of the afternoon light but also believing she saw Martin coming toward her in the narrow street, approaching like the lumbering logger he sometimes seemed to be. Her squinted gaze, however, failed to catch his, and he veered suddenly left into a calle. By the time she reached the corner, he had disappeared entirely. How strange, she thought. She had felt close to something, to him, and then suddenly not. She climbed the path back up toward the villa and went and knocked on the door of his studio, but he wasn’t there.
“You smell good,” she greeted Martin. It was some time later and she had just returned to the room to find him there. “Did you just take a bath?”
“A little while ago,” he said.
She curled up to him, teasingly. “Not a shower? A bath? Did you put some scented bath salts in it?”
“I took a very masculine bath,” said Martin.
She sniffed him again. “What scent did you use?”
“A manly scent,” he said. “Rock. I took a rock-scented bath.”
“Did you take a bubble bath?” She cocked her head to one side.
He smiled. “Yes, but I, uh, made my own bubbles.”
“You did?” She squeezed his biceps.
“Yeah. I hammered the water with my fist.”
She walked over to the cassette player and put a cassette in. She looked over at Martin, who looked suddenly unhappy. “This music annoys you, doesn’t it?”
Martin squirmed. “It’s just—why can’t he sing any one song all the way through?”
She thought about this. “Because he’s Mr. Medley-head?”
“You didn’t bring anything else?”
She went back and sat next to Martin, in silence, smelling the scent of him, as if it were odd.
For dinner there was vitello alia salvia, baby peas and a pasta made with caviar. “Nipping it in the bud,” sighed Adrienne. “An early frost.” A fat, elderly man arriving late pulled his chair out onto her foot, then sat down on it. She shrieked.
“Oh, dear, I’m sorry,” said the man, lifting himself up as best he could.
“It’s okay,” said Adrienne. “I’m sure it’s okay.”
But the next morning, at exercises, Adrienne studied it closely during the leg lifts. The big toe was swollen and blue, and the nail had been loosened and set back at an odd and unhinged angle. “You’re going to lose your toenail,” said Kate.
“Great,” said Adrienne.
“That happened to me once, during my first marriage. My husband dropped a dictionary on my foot. One of those subconscious things.”
“You were married before?”
“Oh, yes,” she sighed. “I had one of those rehearsal marriages, you know, where you’re a feminist and train a guy, and then some other feminist comes along and gets the guy.”
“I don’t know.” Adrienne scowled. “I think there’s something wrong with the words feminist and gets the guy being in the same sentence.”
“Were you upset?”
“Of course. But then, I’d been doing everything. I’d insisted on separate finances, on being totally self-supporting. I was working. I was doing the child care. I paid for the house, I cooked it, I cleaned it. I found myself shouting, “This is feminism? Thank you, Betty!”
“But now you’re with someone else.”
“Pre-taught. Self-cleaning. Batteries included.”
“Someone else trained him, and you stole him.”
Kate smiled. “Of course. What, am I crazy?”
“What happened to the toe?”
“The nail came off. And the one that grew back was wavy and dark and used to scare the children.”
“Oh,” said Adrienne.
“Why would someone publish six books on Chaucer?” Adrienne was watching Martin dress. She was also smoking a cigarette. One of the strange things about the villa was that the smokers had all quit smoking, and the non-smokers had taken it up. People were getting in touch with their alternative centers. Bequeathed cigarettes abounded. Cartons were appearing outside people’s doors.
“You have to understand academic publishing,” said Martin. “No one reads these books. Everyone just agrees to publish everyone else’s. It’s one big circle jerk. It’s a giant economic agreement. When you think about it, it probably violates the Sherman Act.”
“A circle jerk?” she said uncertainly. The cigarette was making her dizzy.
“Yeah,” said Martin, re-knotting his tie.
“But six books on Chaucer? Why not, say, a Cat Stevens book?”
“Don’t look at me,” he said. “I’m in the circle.”
She sighed. “Then I shall sing to you. Mood music.” She made up a romantic, Asian-sounding tune and danced around the room with her cigarette, in a floating, wing-limbed way. “This is my Hopi dance,” she said. “So full of hope.”
Then it was time to go to dinner.
The cockatiel now seemed used to Adrienne and would whistle twice, then fly into the back room, perch quickly on the picture frame and wait with her for Ilke. Adrienne closed her eyes and breathed deeply, the flannel sheet pulled up under her arms, tightly, like a sarong.
Ilke’s face appeared overhead in the dark, as if she were a mother just checking, peering into a crib. “How are you today?”
Adrienne opened her eyes to see that Ilke was wearing a pin that said: Say a Prayer. Pet a Rock.
Say a Prayer. “Good,” said Adrienne. “I’m good.” Pet a Rock.
Ilke ran her fingers through Adrienne’s hair, humming faintly.
“What is this music today?” Adrienne asked. Like Martin, she too had grown weary of the Mandy Patinkin tapes, all that unshackled exuberance.
“Crickets and elk,” Ilke whispered.
“Crickets and elk.”
“Crickets and elk and a little harp.”
Ilke began to move around the table, pulling on Adrienne’s limbs and pressing deep into her tendons. “I’m doing choreographed massage today,” Ilke said. “That’s why I’m wearing this dress.”
Adrienne hadn’t noticed the dress. Instead, with the lights now low, except for the illuminated clouds on the side wall, she felt herself sinking into the pools of death deep in her bones, the dark wells of loneliness, failure, blame. “You may turn over now,” she heard Ilke say. And she struggled a little in the flannel sheets to do so, twisting in them, until Ilke helped her, as if she were a nurse and Adrienne someone old and sick—a stroke victim, that’s what it was. She had become a stroke victim. Then lowering her face into the toweled cheek plates the brace on the table offered up to her (the cradle, Ilke called it), Adrienne began quietly to cry, the deep touching of her body, melting her down to some equation of animal sadness, shoe leather and brine. She began to understand why people would want to live in these dusky nether zones, the meltdown brought on by sleep or drink or this. It seemed truer, more familiar to the soul than was the busy complicated flash that was normal life. Ilke’s arms leaned into her, her breasts brushing softly against Adrienne’s head, which now felt connected to the rest of her only by filaments and strands. The body suddenly seemed a tumor on the brain, a mere means of conveyance, a wagon; the mind’s go-cart taken apart, laid in pieces on this table. “You have a knot here in your trapezius,” Ilke said, kneading Adrienne’s shoulder. “I can feel the belly of the knot right here,” she said, pressing hard, bruising her shoulder a little, and then easing up. “Let go,” she said. “Let go all the way, of everything.”
“I might die,” said Adrienne. Something surged in the music and she missed what Ilke said in reply, though it sounded a little like, “Changes are good.” Though perhaps it was “Chances aren’t good.” Ilke pulled Adrienne’s toes, milking even the injured one, with its loose nail and leaky underskin, and then she left Adrienne there in the dark, in the music, though Adrienne felt it was she who was leaving, like a person dying, like a train pulling away. She felt the rage loosened from her back, floating aimlessly around in her, the rage that did not know at what or whom to rage though it continued to rage.
She awoke to Ilke’s rocking her gently. “Adrienne, get up. I have another client soon.”
“I must have fallen asleep,” said Adrienne. “I’m sorry.”
She got up slowly, got dressed, and went out into the outer room; the cockatiel whooshed out with her, grazing her head.
“I feel like I’ve just been strafed,” she said, clutching her hair.
“Your bird. I mean, by your bird. In there—” she pointed back toward the massage room—“that was great.” She reached into her purse to pay. Ilke had moved the wicker chair to the other side of the room so that there was no longer any place to sit down or linger. “You want lire or dollars?” she asked and was a little taken aback when Ilke said rather firmly, “I’d prefer lire.”
Ilke was bored with her. That was it. Adrienne was having a religious experience, but Ilke—Ilke was just being social. Adrienne held out the money and Ilke plucked it from her hand, then opened the outside door and leaned to give Adrienne the rushed bum’s kiss—left, right—and then closed the door behind her.
Adrienne was in a fog, her legs noodly, her eyes unaccustomed to the light. Outside, in front of the farmacia, if she wasn’t careful, she was going to get hit by a car. How could Ilke just send people out into the busy street like that, ducks for the kill, fatted calves, a farewell to arms? Her body felt doughy, muddy. This was good, she supposed. Decomposition. She stepped slowly, carefully, her Martha Graham step, along the narrow walk between the street and the stores. And when she turned the corner to head back up toward the path to the Villa Hirschborn, there stood Martin, her husband, rounding a corner and heading her way.
“Hi!” she said, so pleased suddenly to meet him like this, away from what she now referred to as “the compound.” “Are you going to the farmacia?” she asked.
“Uh, yes,” said Martin. He leaned to kiss her cheek.
“Want some company?”
He looked a little blank, as if he needed to be alone. Perhaps he was going to buy condoms.
“Oh, never mind,” she said gaily. “I’ll see you later, up at the compound, before dinner.”
“Great,” he said, and took her hand, took two steps away, and then let her hand go, gently, midair.
She walked away, toward a small park—il Giardino Leonardo—out past the station for the vaporetti. Near a particularly exuberant rhododendron sat a short, dark woman with a bright turquoise bandanna knotted around her neck. She had set up a table with a sign: CHIROMANTE: TAROT E FACCIA. Adrienne sat down opposite her in the empty chair. “Americano,” she said.
“I do faces, palms or cards,” the woman with the blue scarf said.
Adrienne looked at her own hands. She didn’t want to have her face read. She lived like that already. It happened all the time at the villa, people trying to read your face—freezing your brain with stoney looks and remarks made malicious with obscurity, so that you couldn’t read their faces, while they were busy reading yours. It all made her feel creepy, like a lonely head on a poster somewhere.
“The cards are the best,” said the woman. “Ten thousand lire.”
“Okay,” said Adrienne. She was still looking at the netting of her open hands, the dried riverbed of life just sitting there. “The cards.”
The woman swept up the cards, and dealt half of them out, every which way in a kind of swastika. Then without glancing at them, she leaned forward boldly and said to Adrienne, “You are sexually unsatisfied. Am I right?”
“Is that what the cards say?”
“In a general way. You have to take the whole deck and interpret.”
“What does this card say?” asked Adrienne, pointing to one with some naked corpses leaping from coffins.
“Any one card doesn’t say anything. It’s the whole feeling of them.” She quickly dealt out the remainder of the deck on top of the other cards. “You are looking for a guide, some kind of guide, because the man you are with does not make you happy. Am I right?”
“Maybe,” said Adrienne, who was already reaching for her purse to pay the ten thousand lire so that she could leave.
“I am right,” said the woman, taking the money and handing Adrienne a small, smudged business card. “Stop by tomorrow. Come to my shop. I have a powder.”
Adrienne wandered back out of the park, past a group of tourists climbing out of a bus, back toward the Villa Hirschborn—through the gate, which she opened with her key, and up the long stone staircase to the top of the promontory. Instead of going back to the villa, she headed out through the woods toward her studio, toward the dead tufts of spiders she had memorialized in her grief. She decided to take a different path, not the one toward the studio, but one that led farther up the hill, a steeper grade, toward an open meadow at the top, with a small Roman ruin at its edge—a corner of the hill’s original fortress still stood there. But in the middle of the meadow, something came over her—a balmy wind, or the heat from the uphill hike, and she took off all her clothes, lay down in the grass and stared around at the dusky sky. To either side of her the spokes of tree branches crisscrossed upward in a kind of cat’s cradle. More directly overhead she studied the silver speck of a jet, the metallic head of its white stream like the tip of a thermometer. There were a hundred people inside this head of a pin, thought Adrienne. Or was it, perhaps, just the head of a pin? When was something truly small, and when was it a matter of distance? The branches of the trees seemed to encroach inward and rotate a little to the left, a little to the right, like something mechanical, and as she began to drift off, she saw the beautiful Spearson baby, cooing in a clown hat, she saw Martin furiously swimming in a pool, she saw the strewn beads of her own fertility, all the eggs within her, leap away like a box of tapioca off a cliff. It seemed to her that everything she had ever needed to know in her life she had known at one time or another, but she just hadn’t known all those things at once, at the same time, at a single moment. They were scattered through, and she had had to leave and forget one in order to get to another. A shadow fell across her, inside her, and she could feel herself retreat to that place in her bones where death was and you greeted it like an acquaintance in a room; you said hello and were then ready for whatever was next—which might be a guide, the guide that might be sent to you, the guide to lead you back out into your life again.
Someone was shaking her gently. She flickered slightly awake to see the pale, ethereal face of a strange older woman leaning over, peering down at her as if Adrienne were something odd in the bottom of a tea cup. The woman was dressed all in white—white shorts, white cardigan, white scarf around her head. The guide.
“Are you—the guide?” whispered Adrienne.
“Yes, my dear,” the woman said in a faintly English voice that sounded like the good witch of the north.
“You are?” Adrienne asked.
“Yes,” said the woman. “And I’ve brought the group up here to view the old fort, but I was a little worried that you might not like all of us traipsing past here while you were, well—are you all right?”
Adrienne was more awake now and sat up to see at the end of the meadow the group of tourists she’d previously seen below in the town, getting off the bus.
“Yes, thank you,” mumbled Adrienne. She lay back down to think about this, hiding herself in the walls of grass, like a child hoping to trick the facts. “Oh, my god,” she finally said, and groped about to her left to find her clothes and clutch them, panicked, to her belly. She breathed deeply, then put them on, lying as flat to the ground as she could, hard to glimpse, a snake getting back inside its skin, a change, perhaps, of reptilian heart. Then she stood, zipped her pants, secured her belt buckle and, squaring her shoulders, walked bravely past the bus and the tourists who, though they tried not to stare at her, did stare.
By this time everyone in the villa was privately doing imitations of everyone else. “Martin, you should announce who you’re doing before you do it,” said Adrienne, dressing for dinner. “I can’t really tell.”
“Cube-steak yuppies!” Martin ranted at the ceiling. “Legends in their own mind! Rumors in their own room!”
“Yourself. You’re doing yourself.” She straightened his collar and tried to be wifely.
For dinner there was cioppino and insalata mista and pesce con pignoli, a thin piece of fish like a leaf. From everywhere around the dining room scraps of dialogue— rhetorical barbed wire, indignant and arcane—floated over toward her: “As an aesthetician, you can’t not be interested in the sublime!” or “Why, that’s the most facile thing I’ve ever heard!” or “Good grief, tell him about the Peasants’ Revolt, would you?” But no one spoke to her directly. She had no subject, not really, not one she liked, except perhaps movies and movie stars. Martin was at a far table, his back toward her, listening to the monk man. At times like these, she thought, it was probably a good idea to carry a small hand puppet.
She made her fingers flap in her lap.
Finally, one of the people next to her turned and introduced himself. His face was poppy-seeded with whiskers, and he seemed to be looking down, watching his own mouth move. When she asked him how he liked it here so far, she received a fairly brief history of the Ottoman Empire. She nodded and smiled, and at the end he rubbed his dark beard, looked at her compassionately, and said, “We are not good advertisements for this life. Are we?”
“There are a lot of dingdongs here,” she admitted. He looked a little hurt, so she added, “But I like that about a place. I do.”
When after dinner she went for an evening walk with Martin, she tried to strike up a conversation about celebrities and movie stars. “I keep thinking about Princess Caroline’s husband being killed,” she said.
Martin was silent.
“That poor family,” said Adrienne. “There’s been so much tragedy.”
Martin glared at her. “Yes,” he said facetiously. “That poor, cursed family. I keep thinking, what can I do to help? What can I do? And I think, and I think, and I think so much I’m helpless. I throw up my hands and end up doing nothing. I’m helpless!” He began to walk faster, ahead of her, down into the village. Adrienne began to run to keep up. Marriage, she thought, it’s an institution, all right.
Near the main piazza, under a streetlamp, the CHIROMANTE: TAROT E FACCIA had set up her table again. When she saw Adrienne, she called out, “Give me your birthday, signora, and your husband’s birthday, and I will do your charts to tell you whether the two of you are compatible! Or—” She paused to study Martin skeptically as he rushed past. “Or, I can just tell you right now.”
“Have you been to this woman before?” he asked, slowing down. Adrienne grabbed Martin’s arm and started to lead him away.
“I needed a change of scenery.”
Now he stopped. “Well,” he said sympathetically, calmer after some exercise, “who could blame you.” Adrienne took his hand, feeling a grateful, marital love—alone, in Italy, at night, in May. Was there any love that wasn’t at bottom a grateful one? The moonlight glittered off the lake like electric fish, like a school of ice.
“What are you doing?” Adrienne asked Ilke the next afternoon. The lamps were particularly low, though there was a spotlight directed onto a picture of Ilke’s mother, which she had placed on an end table, for the month, in honor of Mother’s Day. The mother looked ghostly, like a sacrifice. What if Ilke were truly a witch? What if fluids and hairs and nails were being collected as offerings in memory of her mother?
“I’m fluffing your aura,” she said. “It is very dark today, burned down to a shadowy rim.” She was manipulating Adrienne’s toes and Adrienne suddenly had a horror-movie vision of Ilke with jars of collected toe juice in a closet for Satan, who, it would be revealed, was Ilke’s mother. Perhaps Ilke would lean over suddenly and bite Adrienne’s shoulder, drink her blood. How could Adrienne control these thoughts? She felt her aura fluff like the fur of a screeching cat. She imagined herself, for the first time, never coming here again. Good-bye. Farewell. It would be a brief affair, a little nothing; a chat on the porch at a party.
Fortunately, there were other things to keep Adrienne busy.
She had begun spray-painting the spiders and the results were interesting. She could see herself explaining to a dealer back home that the work represented the spider web of solitude—a vibration at the periphery reverberates inward (experiential, deafening) and the spider rushes out from the center to devour the gong, the gonger and the gong. Gone. She could see the dealer taking her phone number and writing it down on an extremely loose scrap of paper.
And there was the occasional after-dinner sing-song, scholars and spouses gathered around the piano in various states of inebriation and forgetfulness. “Okay, that may be how you learned it, Harold, but that’s not how it goes.”
There was also the Asparagus Festival, which, at Carlo’s suggestion, she and Kate Spalding in one of her T-shirts—all right already with the T-shirts, Kate—decided to attend. They took a hydrofoil across the lake and climbed a steep road up toward a church square. The road was long and tiring and Adrienne began to refer to it as the Asparagus Death Walk.
“Maybe there isn’t really a festival,” she suggested, gasping for breath, but Kate kept walking, ahead of her.
Adrienne sighed. Off in the trees were the ratchety cheeping of birds and the competing, hourly chimes of two churches, followed later by the single off-tone of the half hour. When she and Kate finally reached the asparagus festival, it turned out to be only a little ceremony where a few people bid very high prices for clutches of asparagus described as “bello, bello,” the proceeds from which went to the local church.
“I used to grow asparagus,” said Kate on their walk back down. They were taking a different route this time, and the lake and its ochre villages spread out before them, peaceful and far away. Along the road wildflowers grew in a pallet of pastels, like soaps.
“I could never grow asparagus,” said Adrienne. As a child her favorite food had been “asparagus with holiday sauce.” “I did grow a carrot once, though. But it was so small I just put it in a scrapbook.”
“Are you still seeing Ilke?”
“This week, at any rate. How about you?”
“She’s booked solid. I couldn’t get another appointment. All the scholars, you know, are paying her regular visits.”
“Oh, yes,” said Kate very knowingly. “They’re tense as dimes.” Already Adrienne could smell the fumes of the Fiats and the ferries and delivery vans, the asparagus festival far away.
“Tense as dimes?”
Back at the villa, Adrienne waited for Martin, and when he came in, smelling of sandalwood, all the little deaths in her bones told her this: he was seeing the masseuse.
She sniffed the sweet parabola of his neck and stepped back. “I want to know how long have you’ve been getting massages. Don’t lie to me,” she said slowly, her voice hard as a spike. Anxiety shrank his face: his mouth caved in, his eyes grew beady and scared.
“What makes you think I’ve been getting—” he started to say. “Well, just once or twice.”
She leaped away from him and began pacing furiously about the room, touching the furniture, not looking at him. “How could you?” she asked. “You know what my going there has meant to me! How could you not tell me?” She picked up a book on the dressing table—Industrial Relations Systems—and slammed it back down. “How could you horn in on this experience? How could you be so furtive and untruthful?”
“I am terribly sorry,” he said.
“Yeah, well, so am I,” said Adrienne. “And when we get home, I want a divorce.” She could see it now, the empty apartment, the bad eggplant parmigiana, all the Halloweens she would answer the doorbell, a boozy divorcee frightening the little children with too much enthusiasm for their costumes. “I feel so fucking dishonored!” Nothing around her seemed able to hold steady; nothing held.
Martin was silent and she was silent and then he began to speak, in a beseeching way, there it was the beseech again, rumbling at the edge of her life like a truck. “We are both so lonely here,” he said. “But I have only been waiting for you. That is all I have done for the last eight months. To try not to let things intrude, to let you take your time, to make sure you ate something, to buy the goddamn Spearsons a new picnic bench, to bring you to a place where anything at all might happen, where you might even leave me, but at least come back into life at last—”
“You bought the Spearsons a new picnic bench?”
“Yes, I did.”
She thought about this. “Didn’t they think you were being hostile?”
“Oh…I think, yes, they probably thought it was hostile.”
And the more Adrienne thought about it, about the poor bereaved Spearsons, and about Martin and all the ways he tried to show her he was on her side, whatever that meant, how it was both the hope and shame of him that he was always doing his best, the more she felt foolish, deprived of reasons. Her rage flapped awkwardly away like a duck. She felt as she had when her cold, fierce parents had at last grown sick and old, stick boned and saggy, protected by infirmity the way cuteness protected a baby, or should, it should protect a baby, and she had been left with her rage—vestigial girlhood rage—inappropriate and intact. She would hug her parents good-bye, the gentle, emptied sacks of them, and think, where did you go?
Time, Adrienne thought. What a racket.
Martin had suddenly begun to cry. He sat at the bed’s edge and curled inward, his soft, furry face in his great hard hands, his head falling downward into the bright plaid of his shirt.
She felt dizzy and turned away, toward the window. A fog had drifted in, and in the evening light the sky and the lake seemed a singular blue, like a Monet. “I’ve never seen you cry,” she said.
“Well, I cry,” he said. “I can even cry at the sports page if the games are too close. Look at me, Adrienne. You never really look at me.”
But she could only continue to stare out the window, touching her fingers to the shutters and frame. She felt far away, as if she were back home, walking through the neighborhood at dinnertime: when the cats sounded like babies and the babies sounded like birds, and the fathers were home from work, their children in their arms gumming the language, air shaping their flowery throats into a park of singing. Through the windows wafted the smell of cooking food.
“We are with each other now,” Martin was saying. “And in the different ways it means, we must try to make a life.”
Out over the Sfondrata chapel tower, where the fog had broken, she thought she saw a single star, like the distant nose of a jet; there were people in the clayey clouds. She turned, and for a moment it seemed they were all there in Martin’s eyes, all the absolving dead in residence in his face, the angel of the dead baby shining like a blazing creature, and she went to him, to protect and encircle him, seeking the heart’s best trick, oh, terrific heart. “Please, forgive me,” she said.
And he whispered, “Of course. It is the only thing. Of course.”