Issue 228, Spring 2019
For our honeymoon we went to Tuscany. This got a big sigh from me. I love my job, this city, my life. At home, in our apartment, the kitchen tiles are a deep maroon, a chessboard for girls. I was sitting on them, like a squat little knight, unwrapping a casserole dish, when my husband wheeled a suitcase into the room. One of the most difficult things about being married, I find, is that those thoughts you choose not to say out loud don’t register at all. No one reads your mind. He gently snapped two fingers near my face.
Babe, he said. You look a little dazed.
The first thing I did when we arrived at our villa was set up my salves and creams and serums on the vanity. I laid out my hairbrush handle first. The tweezers. The tints. I like to keep everything in little rows, the jars lined up like soldiers ready for battle. It was Cicero, I believe, who while on an Aristotelian riff proclaimed that the essence of style is appropriateness with respect to time and place. A vanity is no exception. I looked at my platoon of jars. The bouquet of brushes. The glint of the sun on the edge of a cup. All at once it struck me as too much. Perhaps it wasn’t so tasteful for a married woman to disclose all the secrets of her face; she ought to keep some for herself. One by one, I replaced the vials and jars in their quilted armory. An air of mystery immediately settled over the room. I was soothed. But the vanity looked rather spartan. Shouldn’t there be a nail file or at least a tube of lipstick? I glanced at my husband, asleep on the bed. The shape of him. Half my vials returned to the stage before the mirror, though this, too, seemed a losing compromise. At dinner, I spooled spaghetti onto my fork. I ordered a Negroni—or three. It struck me that a partial vanity capitalizes on only half the virtue of femininity, while retaining all its vice.
To be fair, I can’t really say that I enjoy vacations. I’m on vacation all the time, so when I’m away it feels like work. I am a jewelry consultant at a five-star hotel, where I tend to a nook filled with gems. All week long I daydream to the sound of heels clacking across a polished marble floor. My mind melts. I could be miles away. I could be at the beach! Occasionally the phone rings, and then there’s some real excitement—a guest is placing an order for a surprise. The rest is a breeze. I take lunch twice. At two, I put a sign on the door and go for a jog. be back soon. No one seems to mind.
Tuscany, likewise, is permanently on leave. Any direction I looked there was nothing but farms and hills and leisure time. A tractor churned. Someone opened a bottle of wine. The local cheese was Pecorino, and I wasn’t sure I had a taste for it at all, though my husband liked it fine. As for me, I craved a bagel. I missed Christopher Street Chinese. Lo mein. Pot stickers, steamed. At least in Tuscany the cigarettes were very cheap. I had one in the evening. I had two. My husband looked up from his phrase book and asked, Is this a permanent thing? Of course, I said. Because that’s the modus operandi of a marriage, permanence. He smiled. We traipsed to the pool. We wandered through medieval towns sipping different wines. Sometimes we strolled the grounds. We made love. I slipped into a sequined dress with shoulder pads for drinks, and in the morning, I woke up early and watched my husband breathing in the sheets, half expecting him to get up and leave. He didn’t. Still, I dressed quietly so he would not move or change his mind. I slid on my shoes, my sweat-stained bra. I jogged.
On a Tuscan morning Negronis linger; every step ricocheted inside my head. I followed the dirt road along the ridge for miles. The hangover grew worse and worse and then, suddenly, stopped. I breathed. I liked to jog early, before the sense of privacy could seep away like rainwater into the ground. At dawn, no one was around but the German tourists and the Milanese, who were always up, attending to their fitness. I saw them as I slogged over dusty crests, huffing heavily—I’m not used to hills. Fortunately they seemed to prefer their mornings in the opposite direction. They were always going up when I was coming down.
It occurred to me, on those solitary treks, that perhaps what I truly missed was being engaged. Now there’s a vacation. You can get away with anything when you’re a fiancée. One day I was a bride-to-be. The next, a smoker. Shortly after that I started jogging—I had a lot of weight to lose to fit into my dress, which I’d ordered a size too small. Size 6 is a good size for a woman like me. My mother-in-law agreed. She is often agreeing with me, even as I’m not so certain, in the moment, whether I am agreeing with her. The jogging may even have been her idea to start—in any case, it’s stuck.
On a nice day, warm, after a particularly long run, I wanted nothing more than to lie on a balustrade by a river eating bright scoops of gelato with a tiny neon spoon. Instead we went to Florence, to the Uffizi. That old Medici palace, my husband said, is where all the art is kept. I stared into a room encrusted with shells. I stared at Botticelli’s Venus. She was also on the half shell, stubbornly still in the painterly suggestion of a wind. I caught an eyeful of camera flash. We drifted through the galleries. We paused before an Annunciation backdropped entirely in gold: the archangel kneels, Mary is on her throne. My husband punched a few numbers into the audio guide and held it to his ear. A small voice began to speak. The Hail Mary, it said, is written directly on the painting. The prayer angles toward the Virgin like an arrow: Ave maria, gratia plena . . . And Mary, she turns away. She pouts, haughty and unwilling. Of course she recoils; it is the only reasonable response to unexpected advances by an archangel in the night. My husband and I admired her good sense in silence. I felt his fingers reach for mine. Confused, I leaned into his arm. The audio guide whispered its sweet nothings. For a moment I wondered whether I, too, had settled for whatever had come along when I should have turned away. If so, I couldn’t help it. I’m no saint.
The next morning there was an accident. We were in the villa kitchen, making toast. My face was still flushed from my jog. My husband was burning through a box of matches, trying to light the stove. He struck, the blue tip fizzled. He struck again. He guided the small flame toward the burners. Then we heard a crash. The match missed and the stove hissed gas. We were quite alone in our villa—it’s hard not to imagine the worst when the nearest neighbor was miles away. At home, in the city, when the occasional roach shoots out from under the skirt of the couch, we alternate whose turn it is to smash it. We take turns taking out the trash. In this moment, however, there was no knowing whose turn it was. For a long while we did nothing at all. Then my husband killed the gas and slowly opened the door. It was a big wooden drawbridge of a door, heavy and opaque. On the steps there was a bird. My husband looked at it. He looked at the door. He shook his head. Then we were in mourning, and I was ashamed, in the Ciceronian sense, of my bold mauve shirt.
The bird cast a pall over the short drive to Siena. Out the window, the landscape passed in smooth swaths of green and mud, faded like old rags left out in the sun. My husband rubbed his face. I don’t understand, he said. He ran through the evidence. There wasn’t any glass; the bird couldn’t have mistaken its reflection for something else—like another bird. That’s usually what happens, when birds fly into doors. I nodded. I guess it was in the wrong place at the wrong time, I said. My husband fell silent. He pulled to the side of a narrow road to let a tour bus pass. This happened often: we turned onto a one-lane road only to come nose to nose with a car much larger
than ours. Amazingly, there was always just enough time to hit the brakes and allow the oncoming vehicle to pass. It was almost enough to make you believe someone powerful didn’t yet want you to die. I looked at the map. Fifteen kilometers to Siena, I said. Then I looked up, only to be contradicted by a hand-painted sign: chilometri 25.
There is a great dignity problem for the tourist in Italy. Isn’t there supposed to be a Giotto in here? Isn’t the dick a little small? Doesn’t Jesus look a little fat? I was afraid of saying something stupid. Everywhere we turned I saw ourselves: young couples in blister-proof shoes and fresh white shirts, holding hands, craning toward cathedral ceilings. Older couples, too, were everywhere, dreaming of home and separate rooms, where one can shut the door. They stared at us the way one stares into the past. There is a great dignity problem in getting married, I think. The problem is there in the garters, the flowers, the pictures, the pictures, the pictures, in your mother-in-law arriving with a tiny airbrush to hose away the contours in your face (and who knew you could brush away the contours of a female face? Botticelli, that’s who, the Uffizi says), it is there in the size 6 dress you have to half unzip after you keep eating cake because you don’t want to dance. One is quite low on self-esteem following a wedding, and Tuscany is no help. I folded the map. To be both a newlywed and a tourist—it’s the most undignified position of all.
In Siena my husband took out the List. The List was compiled by a college friend of his with a Ph.D. in medieval studies. A personal travel guide, just for us. It was this same friend who told us, before we left, to walk into every church, which in practice had turned out to be a lot of work. It was physically and spiritually taxing to stand in line at every duomo, an exhaustion compounded by the subjects of the frescoes. Trapped in holy plaster, they emoted quietly, looked over my shoulder to the vanishing point of sorrow. In Siena, however, I had hope: the duomo was tiled in teal and pink. It looked more cheerful than most—but inside it was as dark and dim as the rest. My husband stood in the nave and consulted the List, then pointed us toward Donatello’s Feast of Herod, where there was already a crowd. We took our place in the throng. We stared for a while at the bronze relief, in which a kneeling man presents the head of John the Baptist on a plate. My husband whispered facts. It’s notable for its use of perspective, he said. I nodded. He said, I guess John disapproved of Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law? That’s why—you know. I did. What I did not say was that it struck me people are always feasting just before a murder. Herod. Judas. My husband and I. It brought to mind a copy of The Last Supper that hung in the cafeteria at school. It was a glossy, supersaturated print, installed above the entrance to the convent. I spent long minutes lost in its restorative reds and blues while waiting for second helpings on dino nugget days. I’m not sure now whether it was the painting itself that conjured such an irresistible sense of mystery, or its proximity to the nuns’ quarters, which we entered only very rarely, and where they tended to a sliver of the cross. A splinter of death. They kept it on a satin pillow inside a plastic ring box. Imagine: a whole class of second graders, sitting silent in the pews. When the relic came to me, I tried hard to see something grander than a piece of mulch. A needle of bark that might lodge itself, come summer, in the bottom of my foot. I sensed that everyone else was deeply impressed by this holy amulet. They held it tenderly, with awe. I tried to listen with my soul. It was no use. All my life I would have liked to believe. I would have liked to feel moved by the candles in the church, and the silence, and the priests slotted into coffins underground. Only I couldn’t concentrate, not as one among a crowd. In Tuscany the situation was the same. I kept looking around. I got distracted by our collective struggle to renaissance ourselves. One cannot gawk one’s way into personal transformation. And yet that seemed to be my main activity of late—I’m afraid I gawked all day.
Standing before The Feast of Herod, my husband was the one who looked a little dazed. He didn’t seem to notice when two children sprinted between us, colliding with his legs. His mind was back on the doorstep of the villa. I took his hand. Don’t worry, I whispered. I’m sure it didn’t feel any pain.
At noon, in a Sienese bistro, tasting Pecorino cheese, making love could not have been further from my mind. How obscene! I felt so thoroughly a tourist, who would possibly want to have sex with me? Not my husband, surely. Then night fell. We drove home. Phenomenological blemishes were airbrushed in the dark. The landscape was lush and promising; Tuscany returned. Back at our villa, it was as if we, too, had transformed into different beings. We’d come home as strangers to our daytime selves. Do you want a glass of wine? my husband asked. Why not? We drank the whole bottle while considering the stars, discussing Herod. His vengeful wife, Herodias. Obedient Salome. Apparently she tricked him into demanding John the Baptist’s head—my husband read aloud from the Wiki version on his phone. I sighed. It’s all too extreme in the Bible, I said. There’s no room for moral ambiguity, and it’s always a woman at fault. He lay back in the grass and pointed his phone at the sky, as if to look up constellations next. I’m sure that’s not true, he said. Later, I woke up in the middle of the night to internal alarms. My husband heard them, too. We reached for each other through the film of sleep. After, we lay in the borrowed sheets, looking at the darkened bedroom ceiling, as quiet as we ought to have been when searching for that Giotto in the church. I told my husband the story of the sliver of the cross. His face was a pale lantern in the dark, his voice as flat as bronze, no irony at all.
Do you really think they had a sliver of the cross?
In my line of work you get a sense for the truth. The jewelry nook is a confessional, a place of transience and vulnerability, where what you’re vulnerable to is yourself. Men come in with stacks of credit cards and leave with wedding rings and strings of pearls. My wife, they say. My girlfriend. My mother. My niece. I try to intervene. I try to make suggestions—sterling silver for a little girl?—but most seem pretty savvy on their own: pearls for the niece, white gold for the wife, diamonds for the mistress. It makes one wonder what a jewelry consultant like me is for. One afternoon, not long before we left for Tuscany, I marched upstairs to my manager’s office and asked, What am I, anyway? For whom do I consult? He drew his fingertips together and rested his elbows on the desk. You’re here, he said, to facilitate a match. With all due respect, I told him, the matches seem to make themselves. Yes, he said, but you create the opportunity, the air of receptivity. You create the space. I went back downstairs. The way I understand it, I am an architect, and what I construct are invisible castles in which to receive the more beautiful objects of this life. The tenants are mostly men. I ask them, Why not get something for yourself? A few accept. They go straight for the cuff links. They ask, Can these be monogrammed? Aren’t they in luck—they can.
My husband and I met, incidentally, over a pair of cuff links. He is that sort of man. They matched the glint of the drink in his hand as he sat in the lobby bar. I was on my break. They were very nice cuff links. I admired the stainless-steel setting and the understated crown: an amber fleck. He saw me staring and gave his wrists an ironic glance. It’s not my fault, he said. My girlfriend bought me these. And what’s a man do to, he added, when meeting said girlfriend for drinks? I asked him whether she’d bought them here at the hotel. He shook his head. Too bad, I said. We offer a ninety-day return policy, plus free exchanges after that.
Talk about creating space! How exhilarating it used to be to schedule dates with him. He’d say, If I were being forward, I’d ask you to the opera. For fondue. I’d ask you to come back to my place with me. These days he doesn’t have to ask. We’re already both at home, we’re already on a date. To be married is to be on a perpetual date. A nightmare date that runs the whole course of your life.
My husband laughs when I say this. His mother, not so much. She never laughs. Imagine her shock, when we were introduced. What happened to the vetted woman, the daughter of a friend, who’d bought links for his French cuffs? I was nervous. So was my husband. Don’t worry, he said in the elevator, which to my surprise glided straight to the foyer of his childhood home. My mother-in-law was just beyond the sliding doors, and I offered her my hand. Nice to meet you, I said. I was afraid to touch the furniture, afraid to break a vase. She sat at the opposite end of the couch, as if I were contagious, and poured coffee into souvenir cups. My husband shoveled words into the silence. I ate all the cookies on the plate. We went on for months like this. Sipping coffee. Breaking the ice. One day my mother-in-law decided she had no choice but to give in. No more cookies. We switched to tea. After that, it was as if she’d chosen me herself.
The morning after Herod, I woke up feeling strange. It was early. My husband was still asleep. He looked so peaceful there, dreaming postcoital dreams. I watched him tenderly. I went into the kitchen and found the bottle of wine we’d shared. The ashtrays we had filled. The stars had been so crisp and clear, unlike anything we see living in the city, and now the sky was gray. On the porch, I pulled on the bra from the day before. The air was cool and the bird’s wings spread wide under the eaves, its feathers laced with frost. Poor little bird. It had died so carelessly.
That morning I jogged long. I began on the same route I’d run every morning since we arrived. Down the path, past the log pile and the little pond where the land began to slope. It was too early even for the German tourists; the landscape was all for me. It emptied onto the horizon. The dry grass. The delicate frost. For so long I had imagined the landscapes rendered by Da Vinci and Raphael to be mere fantasies of Tuscany; the soft edges in The Virgin and Child, the one with Saint Anne, belonged to a whole world made of butter. But there are hours of a Tuscan day when this is exactly the case, when the light slides just so across the surfaces of things. The hills. The trees. The cypresses blur, evaporating. I ran through a row of them, along a ridge, past the villa nearest ours. I came to the point where normally I turned around and then ran farther still. Tractors tore through the painted silence. I met a hill. It was so steep I slowed to a walk. I thought of pilgrimages on which devotees climb stone steps on their knees to kiss a statue’s feet. Here I was working through my own penance in the dust. For what? I gave up. Or my legs gave up. I stopped. Before me was a clearing, and in the clearing, a church. The door was open. I went inside.
The church was cool and bare and very quiet. My sneakers felt uncanny on the stone—I had half a mind to take them off. I found the plaque by the pews. This was a tenth-century church, I read, that had burned down twice. I placed a palm against the wall. Cool as cellar fruit. A votive candle flickered at the altar. The flame was new and the wick burned tall, though it struck me no one had been in here in quite some time. There was nothing in the donation box; no coins rattled when I tapped the side. I looked around. There were no deacons, no guards, no ticket takers peddling plastic rosaries and souvenirs. The church was empty save its cross, candles, plaque, and pews, and I was very alone. I approached the altar. I slipped a second candle from its pigeonhole and tipped the wick to the eternal light. For whom? For whom should I light this candle? I paused. The wax began to drip, sealing the epistle of my thumb. I settled the flame into its stand. Then I stood in the door and looked into the shadows of the apse. How pure it must have felt in these small stone rooms, in those centuries when people still believed. And it was this idea, maybe, that compelled me to kneel on the stone. The candle flickered. I knelt until something in me announced it was time to go. Then I stood up and jogged away. When I looked back, the church had disappeared behind an unmarked crest. I felt the beauty of my secret—it was mine alone. And yet, as I neared the villa, I was filled with a desire to share what had happened to me. I felt the need to show my husband, to bring him to that hill and have him see what I had seen. It was only as I came up the path, past the pond, past the newly wakened Germans in their trekking gear, that I realized visiting the church with someone else would not be the same. Two would ruin everything. Still, I felt the great desire to confess. It was the same urgency one feels, in winter, to stamp a foot into fresh snow. I could be a tourist, or I could be alone.
I slowed to a walk. The dirt gave way to grass. I rounded the corner of the villa. There was my husband, on his knees, the earth before him textured by a grave. He smoothed it with a trowel. I stood very still, watching the sun in his hair. It hadn’t occurred to me, while I was gone, that he might be holding vigils of his own.
Sometimes I miss those early months of courtship, when everything was still uncertain. Those days when we still lived apart—it was only a year ago. It seems to me there is something lost to those hour-long rides along the A line. The thrill of the ask. The space. One gets so used to one’s routines, living on one’s own. Towel turbans, pajamas on the chair. Noodles over the sink. My question is, How to live alone, together, without living a lie? I knew a poet once who thought of an elegant solution. When her lover asked her to marry him, she replied that perhaps he ought to rent the apartment across the hall. In the future I will never marry unless we agree to live apart. But close by. Not that I’ll ever have the chance. I know I’m lucky to have a husband like mine.
From time to time I take out the postcard print that I brought back from Tuscany, my only nonedible souvenir. It is a postcard I will never send. I examine it at night, in the damask dim of the kitchen, over a clandestine cigarette. I read the back: “Annunciation with Saint Margaret and Saint Ansanus, by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (1333).” I trace the outline of Mary’s disdain. How royal she looks. I sit with her in the kitchen, on the maroon chessboard of the tiles. I think, sometimes, how different things would be if only she’d kept the whole thing to herself. I wonder which way the world would tilt. And what if she’d said no?