I held an unusually long reed in my hand and I dipped it as deep as I could into the river. It fell in and disappeared in front of me. I took my feet out of the water and stepped back a little, gripped by a powerful fear, which I recognized by the trembling of my hands. The river swallowing me up was a fear that had been with me ever since I heard Nanny Fanida’s story. She always retold the tale of a beautiful girl who just wanted to sleep for a little while in the river but drowned. Every time I saw the river when it was calm I would remember what my nanny had said: the river was at its most dangerous when it enticed you to sleep in its embrace.
I couldn’t play with the other children in our village, not when they tormented my beautiful friend every time they saw her. It was a sad day when I saw them fighting to be the one to seize hold of the ladybird. She had curled up her body until neither her head nor legs were visible. I rushed over to them and told them to let her go but they refused.
After that awkward day, I used to go out into the woods next to our house. The trees covered a large area and their thin twigs sprouted fresh shoots – I had never seen anything like them. I felt I was searching for that ladybird to prevent the village children from kicking her around every day. I really loved that tiny insect. I collected several of them in a big glass jar and put them on my balcony; I even brought them other insects to eat.
Now, I had made myself new friends of many different colours: red, yellow, orange – I liked the colour orange the most. I shut myself away with them in the boring evening hours that went by so slowly. Every evening, my father would put on his reading glasses and endeavour to keep them fixed on the tip of his nose. Then he would slowly peruse the newspapers, which used to arrive late in our village. He let out the most vitriolic curses and insults, followed by a loud grunt, which my mother always received with her usual composure. She had been doing embroidery for a long time and, in the next room, had built up several piles of headscarves – all the same colour but with different designs. (She did want some different colours but could not go into town to get them.)
I can still remember the clock striking eight, because I knew that after the eighth chime, my mother would call Nanny Fanida to put me to bed. I used to brush my teeth at four minutes to eight then rinse my mouth out with a handful of the sentences that my nanny used to repeat in those minutes before the clock struck eight, with its chimes that hammered in my chest every day. Once, I hid empty notebooks in my bedclothes, because I had begun to hate eight o’clock, the official time that announced the end of my childhood world around the house. I turned on the light and waited a while until any rustling had ended. Then, I got out my coloured pencils and began to draw pictures of my friend on the beautiful notebook. But, straightaway, my nanny came in to tell me that if I did not go to sleep she would lose her job. She put me back in bed at five past eight. That was the only time that I had the light on in my room past eight o’clock – for five minutes, or maybe a little more…
A few days later I put on my orange jacket with black spots, which I had gone to buy with my nanny in town. I loved that colour and I loved the way my friends wore it. My friends had got used to my balcony and had started to go away for a little while and come back, as if they knew it was their home. I got used to letting them climb up my finger and fly off on their little wings which helped them rise to the highest heights. They became closer to me once I had started to dress and even act like them. I would repeat this little song to them with all the kindness I could muster:
Laisse-moi compter tes vies sur tes ailes
Toi qui n’as jamais vu ta colère dis-moi
Dis-moi comment faire comme toi 1
The next night I couldn’t sleep, despite the darkness and constant chiming of hours. I could still hear the words of the children echoing loudly in my head. I could hear their laughs as they saw me wearing that jacket: “Ladybird … Ladybird … Ladybird.”
My mother did not notice me. She just stole glances at my father as she sewed her napkins, which had become so plentiful I could no longer count them; I don’t think my mother could either.
It was eight o’clock when my husband shouted for me at the top of his voice. I didn’t want to answer him at that precise moment. I took my feet out from under the covers to combat the anxiety attacks that I slipped into whenever the clock struck eight. I hoped that I would not see him until the heart palpitations had subsided and I had finished the subsequent rituals. I have got used to these secret rituals. Now, I even do them without realising. Sometimes Nanny Fanida would appear to me, holding her pink towel to dry and rub my body. She would say in her soft voice: “Your body is getting bigger. You have become a beautiful young woman.”
But my father saw the insects flying about on the balcony. That was the moment he changed his usual evening routine. He went up to my room to discover the glass jar where those beautiful creatures were living. He shouted in the nanny’s face, “The daughter of the best family in the village is breeding these stupid insects…”
My nanny swallowed her words so far down that I thought she might never speak again. He called the gardener and told him to burn the insects so that they would never again come back to the house. Then he settled his reading glasses on their usual place and sank into his newspapers. But the gardener did not burn my friends, he just put them back in the fields. “They are all of our friends,” he told me, “because they eat the insects that destroy our crops. I put them back in the fields.”
A few days later Nanny Fanida felt giddy and almost fainted. So, I called her over so I could surprise her with a ladybird; I had drawn them in many different ways. The orange colours shone out in the night and eased my moments of fear in the overwhelming darkness. Little by little the colour returned to Nanny Fanida and she was no longer faint. She tried to make up excuses to prevent my mother coming up to my room.
My husband was waiting for me, wondering where I was, as he put his black gloves on the bedside table. He had just come back from hunting, which had been a serious hobby of his for a while. He would go out at the same time in the afternoon, wearing the same clothes, with the same friends who talked about the same wealth that their fathers had managed to accumulate through devoted hard-work, unceasing perseverance, and honest toil. They smoked black cigarettes, wore black hats and put black glasses over their eyes to protect them from the sun. Then they would hunt beautiful animals. They had no need to eat them and, most of the time, they hunted them only to discard their bodies on a piece of wasteland. They competed with each other, speaking in well-rehearsed words with tightly drawn lips.
My husband stroked my stomach with total calm. His well-trimmed moustache trembled a little. That was the sign that let me know he wanted something. His manner was calm, emotionless. I longed to be able to scream or laugh so loud that the neighbours would hear me. But my husband was as precise as the American watch that he hadn’t stopped talking about since he visited the USA. He would treat me every evening to the same, repeated stories that had helped him discover the world that lay far beyond our eyes. That was his prelude to the heated rituals of cold nights.
I curled up into a ball… In my belly, there were some rumblings around my intestines. I wished that I could bring my beautiful insects from my little old room. They were still there. My father had left them on the wall after I had begged him not to make them leave the room. He gave a humdrum laugh and said, “OK, I’ll leave them, seeing as you are the only daughter we have. But we will remember your silliness and laugh about it some evening.” Then he laughed heartily; my mother also laughed with well-trained effort and she pulled her mouth into a little smile. My father complimented her and the way she had raised me.
I could not avert my eyes from his strong forearms. He hid his own beautiful eyes because he was too shy to look a woman in the face. One day, I began to insist that he looked straight at me when he was talking to me. His eyes were enchanting; I hoped that they would never blink. At that moment, I felt confused about everything. The world was spinning around me. I rushed into my room and grabbed a piece of paper to draw those eyes. He was very close to my friends. He looked like me, even if I was far removed from him.
That night, I could not sleep. My husband saw my anxiety and, with his usual calmness, tried to absorb all the emotions I had bottled up inside me. But it was him I saw with me. I retraced the map of his rough arms, until I felt I was touching him. That day I followed him. He was running between the trees. When he saw me, he was confused. He said to me: “What does the lady command?”
I gave him a look of passion and he looked down at the ground, shyly. I grabbed his arm and placed my hand on his lips. I felt the violence hidden within him – something ready to explode inside. I began to run my lips along his and he did not resist. He grabbed me with all the force that I craved and enveloped me in his strong arms until I melted. That was the only moment that I have ever felt that I truly existed on the face of this small earth. His embrace was strange. I had never felt any like it in real life before, I had only dreamed of it. I said to myself: “What matters is that I have experienced this feeling, even if it was only for a minute.” Afterwards, he looked at me with fear, as if he had kissed me without knowing it. I put my hands on his lips and intimated to him not to speak. I had only been with him for a few minutes, but those minutes would never disappear.
I took my cold feet out of the depths of the river and laughed, then screamed. Everyday, I go back to my house and, once sleep has caressed my husband’s eyelids, for a while I curl up into a ball.
Our friends the Zaitsevs live out of town “The air is so much better out in the suburbs,” they say. That is, they can’t afford to live where the air is bad. A small group of us went to visit them.
We set off without any mishap. That is, apart from minor details: we didn’t take enough cigarettes, one of us lost her gloves, another forgot her door key. And then, at the station, we bought one ticket less than we needed. Well, anyone can make a mistake. We counted wrong. Even though there were only four of us.
It was a little awkward, actually, that we counted wrong. Apparently, in Hamburg, there was once a horse that could count beautifully, right up to six…
And we got out without any mishap at the right station. Though we did get out once or twice before—at every station, as a matter of fact. But every time, realizing our mistake, we had, very sensibly, got back in the carriage.
When we arrived at our destination we had a few more awkward moments. It turned out that none of us knew the Zaitsevs’ address. Each of us was relying on the others.
A quiet, gentle voice came to our aid: “You’re here!”
It was the Zaitsevs’ daughter: a girl of eleven, clear-eyed, with blond Russian plaits just like I had had at that age (plaits pulled so many, many times by other children, plaits that brought me no end of grief!).
She had come to meet us.
“I really didn’t think you’d get here!” she said.
“Well, Mama kept saying that you’d either miss the train or get the wrong one.”
I was a little offended. I’m actually very punctual. Recently, when I was invited to a ball, not only did I not arrive late—I was a whole week early.
“Ah, Natasha, Natasha!” I said. “You don’t know me very well yet!”
Her clear eyes looked at me thoughtfully, then down at the ground.
Delighted that we now knew where we were going, we decided to go and sit in a café for a while, then to hunt down some cigarettes, then try to telephone Paris and then…
But the fair-haired girl said very seriously, “No, you absolutely mustn’t. We must go back home right away. They’re expecting us.”
So, shamefaced and obedient, we set off in single file behind the young girl.
We found our hostess at the stove.
She was looking bemusedly into a saucepan.
“Natasha, quick! Tell me what you think? What is this I’ve ended up with—roast beef or salt beef?”
The girl had a look.
“No, my angel,” she said. “This time it looks like beef stew.”
“Wonderful! Who’d have thought it?” cried Madame Zaitseva, delighted.
Dinner was a noisy affair.
We were all very fond of one another, all enjoying ourselves, and all in the mood to talk. We all talked at once. Somebody talked about the journal Contemporary Notes. Somebody talked about how you shouldn’t pray for Lenin. That would be a sin. After all, the Church didn’t pray for Judas. Somebody talked about Parisian women and dresses, about Dostoevsky, about the recent spelling reform, about the situation of writers abroad and about the Dukhobors, and somebody wanted to tell us how the Czechs cook eggs, but she never succeeded. She kept talking away, but she was constantly interrupted.
And in all the hubbub the young girl, now wearing an apron, walked round the table, picking up a fork that had fallen onto the floor, moving a glass away from the edge of the table, seeing to all our needs, taking our worries to heart, her blond plaits glinting as bright as ever.
At one point she came up to one of us and held out a ticket.
“Look,” she said. “I want to show you something. In your own home, is it you who looks after the housekeeping? Well, when you next buy some wine, ask for one of these tickets. When you’ve collected a hundred tickets, they’ll give you six towels.”
She kept pointing things out to us and explaining things. She very much wanted to help—to help us live in the world.
“How wonderful it is here,” enthused our hostess. “After the lives we led under the Bolsheviks! It’s barely believable. You turn on a tap—and water comes out. You go to light the stove—and there’s firewood already there.”
“Eat up, my angel,” the girl whispered. “Your food will go cold.”
We talked until it grew dark. The fair-haired girl had for some time been repeating something to each of us in turn. At last somebody paid attention.
“You need to catch the seven o’clock train,” she had been saying. “You must go to the station straight away.”
We grabbed our things and ran to the station.
There we had one last, hurried conversation.
“We need to buy Madame Zaitseva a dress tomorrow. Very modest, but showy. Black, but not too black. Narrow, but it must look full. And most important of all, one she won’t grow tired of.”
“Let’s take Natasha with us. She can advise us.”
And off we went again: Contemporary Notes, Gorky, French literature, Rome-
And the fair-haired girl was walking about, saying something, trying to convince us of something. At last, somebody listened.
“You need to go over the bridge to the other platform. Don’t wait till the train comes in or you’ll have to rush and you might miss it.”
The next day, in the shop, the graceful figure of Madame Zaitseva was reflected in two triple mirrors. A little salesgirl with pomaded hair and short legs was draping one dress after another over her. And on a chair, her hands politely folded, sat the fair-haired girl, dispensing advice.
“Oh!” said Madame Zaitseva, flitting about between the mirrors. “This one is lovely. Natasha, why aren’t you giving me any advice? Look, isn’t that beautiful—with the grey embroidery on the front. Quick, tell me what you think!”
“No, my angel, you mustn’t buy a dress like that. How could you go about every day with a grey stomach? It would be different if you had a lot of dresses. But as it is, it’s not very practical.”
“Well, fancy you saying that!” her mother protested. But she didn’t dare disobey.
We began to make our way out.
“Oh!” cried Madame Zaitseva, “Just look at these collars! They’re just what I’ve been dreaming of! Natasha, take me away from them quickly, don’t let me get carried away!”
Concerned, the fair-haired girl took her mother by the hand.
“Come this way, my angel, don’t look over there. Come over here and look at the needles and thread.”
“You know what?” whispered Madame Zaitseva, with a sideways glance at her daughter. “She heard what we were saying about Lenin yesterday. And in the evening she said, ‘I pray for him every day. People say he has much blood on his conscience. It’s a burden on his soul… I can’t help it,’ she said to me, ‘I pray for him.’”
*Taken from Rasputin and Other Stories by Teffi, ed. Robert Chandler and Ann Marie Jackson, Pushkin Press London
Tommy’s cousin Gabe. Tommy’s distant cousin Gabe from Stillwater, Minnesota. Tommy’s cousin Gabe, related to my husband through divorce and remarriage, in lieu of actual blood, who arrives on my front porch at dinnertime with a duffel bag and fanny pack. Industrial-sized.
Gabe. Two hungry blue eyes, trapped in a giant body. Infinite, knowing eyes of an orca whale. This is Gabe.
Sea monster son of Vickie, the housewife, and Gary, the unemployed architect. Grandson of Lillith, the secretary, and Chester, the inventor of the lightning rod.
Gabe, clinically depressed, he announces at the table after Tommy gets up to go check his e-mail, and not taking his Paxil.
Tommy’s cousin Gabe, who admits to falling in love with married women only, who has flown out to Los Angeles this time to deliver a hardbound copy of The Celestine Prophecy to a married woman he knows in Calabasas.
Strawberry blond, 275-pound Gabe, whose job it is to run employee vacation and incentive programs for Buy Rite International Corporation. Gabe, who can, on any given weekend, fly down to Fort Worth in order to tell several people (always women and usually married) that they have just won a free weekend trip to Cabo San Lucas.
Gabe, who tells me (and my husband’s currently empty dining room chair) that he gives all the women he loves a copy of The Celestine Prophecy. Laurie, Molly, Susan.
GABE EDWARD ARTHUR KAKE. Twenty-four years of age. Recent graduate of a Lutheran university, which he attended over the dead, severely diabetic body of his Catholic father, Gary, the unemployed architect. With undergrad friends from around the globe who were all deported last year, leaving him with absolutely “zero” people.
Gabe, who will be the first to admit he has a problem with Pop-Tarts sometimes, and who asks me, did I know, was I aware, that after he gives out trips to Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco to these married women he knows are married (that he has read about in the personnel files), after they scream and laugh and he gets, quote, “a free hug,” after he asks these selfsame women out for a celebratory drink or dinner and they say no, they are engaged, betrothed, previously committed, whatever! After that did I know that then, stranded in these very foreign American places, did I know that he, Gabe, always goes back to his second-class hotel with no toaster in sight and eats raw Pop-Tarts and turns on the water of the sink full-blast so nobody can hear him crying? Did I know that? Could I guess?
“No, Gabe,” I say. “I couldn’t have guessed.”
Gabe: moving from topic to topic without changing tone, taking a breath, or blinking, who has had more than just one psychic dream come true in his life, and who, more than anything, wants an Irish setter, because they were described in the Dog Fancier’s book he got free from a friend at work as being full of abounding love, even if there is no one there to receive it.
Gabe, who tells me all of the above while Tommy is still conveniently in his office, MIA. And who tells me, in addition to all of this, that every single untouchable married woman in his life, the Lauries Mollys Susans, he has just now, this very second, realized, remind him of me.
Gabe tells me he is aware that I am married and that I am also thirty-six. “The age difference would be a problem, wouldn’t it?” he asks, and I answer him in all seriousness over the sound of Tommy washing his hands in the bathroom.
Gabe, who follows me through the house after dinner while I sweep. Who trails out into the driveway after me when I take out the recycling. Who puts his pistachio shells down the garbage disposal even though I tell him, “Gabe, please don’t put your pistachio shells down the garbage disposal.”
Gabe, who would climb into a woman and live there forever like a castaway if she’d let him. Gabe, who has scurvy, practically, from his desire for these pirate-fantasy women he cannot touch.
“I guess I’ll take this as a compliment, Gabe,” I say, when I turn around and find him four inches from me as I finish the dishes.
“Do so,” he says quietly. And then winks.
Porous, soft, almost albino Gabe. Who leaves his advice books about women on the coffee table for me to find after he unpacks. Like Maxim’s Pocket Book of Women, and WOMEN: The Unauthorized Guide, which when I do find them, and of course, open them once Tommy and I are in the bedroom, advise men to speak in a lower register to women because it reminds them of their father’s authority, and to speak in rhythmic tones to women because it lulls them into feeling comforted and protected, and quote, “ready for anything.”
“There’s someone I want to show you to, okay?” Tommy whispers after we hear the squish of Gabe in the living room, lowering himself onto the blow-up mattress, and as he points the webcam toward my side of the bed, I roll my eyes at him before I pull off my shirt.
“You better do it fast.”
Gabe: in the house for eight days so far. Who eats entire bags of sesame sticks covered with Italian dressing and calls this dinner. Who says even though we’ve met him only once before, that Tommy and me, we feel like his only family.
“We should introduce him to Summer,” Tommy says. “Remember? That girl with the e-tutorial for virgins?”
But God knows he’d fall in love with her. He’d fall in love with a woman in a Crisco commercial. He’d send her fan letter after fan letter: “When you picked up the corncob that way, I found you beautiful.”
Gabe, reviled by his own body. Gabe, who looks unlived, whose skin is pale, fetal-looking. Whose skin has the milky quality of having been tom from the womb too soon. Gabe, who barely has palm lines, whose eyes trace my silhouette at the sink as he picks gum off the lining of his ski jacket with a butter knife. Gum that got stuck there when he went alone to see Unleashed at the 22-plex because we had to go to one of Tommy’s parties and couldn’t take him.
And finally, Gabe. Who is sitting in the living room with all the lights off when I come home from work on the afternoon of Day 9, cradling my sixty-pound pit bull in his lap.
“How’s it going, Gabe,” I ask, and when he hears my voice, he looks up and smiles beatifically.
And this is when Gabe tells me about “recently,” when he was just sitting at his desk inside Buy Rite corporate headquarters. How he was just sitting there, in his cubby, when he, quote, “hit a wall.” Literally. And his hand popped straight through the particleboard in a geometric circle. Perfectly round.
And at that precise moment, he had to get away from Laurie, typing away in the cubby right next to him. Married Laurie. Wife of somebody else. Laurie, who owns one shepherd mix and one full-bred shepherd, and who, if he’s honest with himself, is actually the one who gave Gabe the idea about the Irish setter and the Dog Fancier’s book too, in fact, when she and the husband invited him over that one great year on Super Bowl Sunday.
Laurie, who was diagnosed recently with both breast and ovarian malignancies. Laurie, who is getting radiation here in Calabasas, by the way, where she is currently staying with her cousin Molly, and her cousin Susan. Cousins and next-door neighbors, he adds. Both already married.
“Calabasas?” I say, before it occurs to me. “Oh.”
“But it wasn’t stalking her to come here,” Gabe assures me. “Not by a long shot.” They worked together at the Buy Rite. She was sick and it was obvious. Before he punched a hole in it, their cubbies used to share a common wall.
Gabe sighs and nuzzles the dog, who lathers him with her tongue from chin to forehead. “If you hear someone throwing up in the women’s bathroom,” he says, “and you can recognize from the sound of the retching who it is, shouldn’t you go in? Following someone you love to the bathroom isn’t inappropriate. In a perfect, evolving world like the one in The Celestine Prophecy, this kind of service would be called ‘friendship slash concern.’”
“People don’t get fired because they walk into the women’s room, though.”
Gabe pushes the dog from his lap and his shoulders droop. “It was just an e-mail to a few people on the sales floor,” he says. “If someone cares whether or not you die, I don’t see the problem with letting several key individuals know about it, do you?”
“Wow, Gabe,” I say, staring across the coffee table at him without blinking. “A group e-mail.”
“I know,” Gabe sighs, bowing his head. “Do you think I could get a free hug?”
Gabe, in my living room with a swirl of black dog hair on the pocket of his button-down.
Gabe, who promises, as our arms jerk uncomfortably around each other, that on his next visit he will definitely give me a copy of The Celestine Prophecy, or have one of Laurie’s cousins from Calabasas drop it by. Either one.
Gabe, who leaves on Day 10 while Tommy is doing errands, requesting a ride to LAX five and a half hours before the departure of his plane. Who we will not hear from him again until we receive his family’s Christmas letter two months later. “Gabe got fired from Buy Rite for some reason,” it says, “and Gary has to get his leg amputated in April from the diabetes. His attitude is positive and he wants to start playing golf.”
Gabe, who tells me at curbside check-in that he may try for an accounting position at Fingerhut, a company that sells women’s clothing patterns throughout the Midwest. Gabe, who I wish I could tell, before he departs this less than clean Nissan, that Tommy, he never leaves the house to do errands without his laptop, not anymore. Gabe, who makes me think:
Why are we put here if not to live in torment?
Who makes me wonder: How can our gods bear to watch us do it?
God, up there in the Sunroom, the Universe Room. God, up there on the Bridge. God, just a kid in wayfarer sandals who likes it dirty. A horny kid in front of a blurry screen, aiming His viewfinder down at us ants.
Gabe, who makes me want to cry out to whoever’s in charge, like Isaiah did or something, with a voice lifted up to every mountain rough place, across every fertile valley and desert highway, every scarred, uneven plain, to the east and to the west, to starboard, port and aft, up and down this barren concourse of strangers.
And consider: every ticketed passenger dragging a secret suitcase, each daughter of Egypt and son of Israel traveling first-class, business, or otherwise. Calling all of them by name: every lifestyle enthusiast and compulsive masturbator.
I am Begging. Please.
Mon dieu. Dios mio.
To the Chief of Operations. The One who has measured the waters and marked off the heavens, supposedly, with the hollow of His fucking hand.
Won’t somebody, somewhere. Someone human, anywhere?
Won’t some person who is not already married or dying ever love this naked Gabe?
We used to jump, Lydia and I, as high and as often as we could, hands high over our heads, wearing colourful dresses, our knees pulled up, our feet in stout shoes we were allowed to keep on while jumping, though they sometimes came loose and fell off. Down there at the harbour where a few boats bobbed on the water behind the high fences and the no-entry signs, only four or five boats, perhaps because it wasn’t really a harbour, just brown water bordering an endless expanse of concrete where a circus set up its tents and trailers and stalls during the summer months. And a trampoline, a big trampoline we could jump on for fifty pfennigs, Lydia and I.
Lydia peered through the telescope someone had installed by the water, near a fence, long before our time, when there were still cranes and ships and sheds and box cars, and she peered through other telescopes too wherever and whenever we found them. It didn’t make sense to me, why she loved looking through a dark tube that made the world look a lot smaller and only showed a tiny piece of it, but maybe the reason I didn’t like it was because Lydia loved it, because for once I wanted to dislike something that she liked, even if it was only looking through a telescope. I didn’t understand what she could see, what anyone could see, for that matter; all I ever saw was green, and by the time I figured out how to hold the telescope and angle it, the lens snapped shut and it all went black.
Lydia always behaved as if she was the only person who could see what she saw, as if no one else could see it, as if the telescope through which she peered was not any old telescope you could throw a coin into but one made especially for her, to be operated by her alone. She never skipped a telescope on our rambles and expeditions, not the one on the viewing tower in the forest nearby, nor the one on the observation deck at the airport. Each time she would step up onto the tiny steel platform in the same stout shoes, summer or winter, grab the handles left and right that always stained her fingers red, and haul herself up.
There came a time when Lydia no longer liked these things, though neither she nor I knew why; not the telescopes, not the jumping, not the candyfloss we used to pull off in pink or white wads that left a sugary coating on our teeth, not even the summer sky, high above us, with its clouds and the occasional seagulls and jet trails, this sky Lydia had always loved because it changed colour every time we looked up. Before, we had been happy just to lie on that concrete expanse near the boats and look up at the sky, where the other children’s kites flew among the fluffy clouds and the seagulls, kites which they got from the circus folk and which, as soon as the wind changed, came crashing down on the concrete near our heads, their noses pointing down like arrows in flight. We called this summer sky our sky, because we liked the way it allowed us to fly kites, chasing them higher and higher to meet the sky, and because it changed colour from one moment to the next.
On her sixteenth birthday, Lydia stopped wearing the dresses her mother bought for us and never touched them again. Lydia’s mother used to order these dresses with the little bit of money she had to spare, out of catalogues left in hallways in spring and autumn; she would leaf through them for days, weeks, marking pages whenever something took her fancy, putting paper clips on anything she thought would look pretty on Lydia and on me.
Two years later, Lydia packed her bags, the two small holdalls she had, taking only the bare essentials – two books, two notebooks, a photo, and just a few clothes. She had given her mother and me plenty of notice of her new life and described it the way she saw it. She knew it already, before it had so much as begun; she had even started to fit out what would soon be her new room, filling it in her mind with furniture and rugs that would be different to her mother’s. She’d wear gloves all year round, Lydia had said, gloves of palest leather, and she’d buy her clothes in London, only in London, no other city in the world would do. We let her talk, Lydia’s mother and I, without believing a word of it, because Lydia often talked about things she seemed to forget as soon as they were out of her mouth, things that never happened in the end, at least not the way Lydia described them or imagined them. Maybe we didn’t want to believe her because we didn’t want our life to be a life without Lydia. Lydia used to say to me, when we are old, you and I, really old, we will still have each other, or we’ll have each other again, and nothing will bother us any more, not autumn, not winter, not our white hair. We will have each other; she said it again two months before she disappeared, leaving me behind wondering when.
Lydia’s mother spent a lot of time sitting on a chair by the window, a chair Lydia and I had painted white the previous summer, because that summer we’d painted all of Lydia’s mother’s furniture white. Lydia’s mother let us do it, because she always gave Lydia permission for her projects, and so, after Lydia had left, she sat by the window on this particular white chair, the only one on which Lydia had painted a stripe and two pale pink roses on top of the white, using a stencil she made herself. She never took her coat off now, the old check one that didn’t go with her skirt, the same coat Lydia had always wanted to hide or burn; she kept her gloves on too and clung to her coat with one hand as if this piece of cloth could hold her in place.
We waited, Lydia’s mother and I, and it took a long time for us to grasp that Lydia was gone, that she had let the door close behind her, had floated down the stairs, up the street to the bus stop, wearing her woolly hat and her dark jacket, holding the two bags and the ticket she had saved so long for, away to the airport and onto a plane Lydia’s mother and I did not want to watch taking off. But we imagined all that as we sat by the window on the white chairs, and during the days and the weeks that followed, imagining Lydia rushing with her two bags to the observation deck in the last few minutes before her flight was called to take one more look through the telescope, grabbing the handles left and right one last time.
Now there’s this postcard on my bed, and beside it a key on a ribbon, a bright red ribbon, an address in London, and Lydia’s kiss, also bright red, with which she stamped all her letters, and beside that the PIN code you have to key in if you want her door to open, and six words in her typical style, more catchphrase than letter: Come to see – autumn and me.
It takes some time for me to phone her, perhaps because I find myself thinking, too often, that she never came to see us, not even for a day, not even to see her mother, that every summer she came up with excuses that weren’t really excuses; and because I still find myself thinking, too often, how she didn’t just pretend that we weren’t right for her any more but actually made me think that we, the two of us, had never been right, that it had never really existed, me and her, not the clothes from the catalogues, nor the place we called the harbour, nor the circus that set up a trampoline and handed out kites, nor the telescopes for Lydia to look through. So I’m relieved, now, when all I get is the answering machine, Lydia’s voice repeating in English the number I just dialled, and I say something in a weak, faltering voice, something beginning with: Hi, Lydia. So… A stupid, meaningless So that doesn’t preface anything, and later, a few hours later, Lydia rings back and says: Are you OK? You sound really weird.
She meets me at the airport, smiles her big wide smile and doesn’t stop, puts her arm around my shoulder and doesn’t take it away, not even later, on the train or on the escalator, in her entrance hall beside all the letter boxes, or in the little lift that takes us up once its black scissor gate has closed. She lets me open the door, using the key she sent me, the one with the red ribbon, and stands beside me, studying my hands as I turn the key in the lock, looking as if she had been longing for this moment, waiting for it to arrive.
Her apartment is painted white, a white bordering on cream; the bedlinen is white, the towels in the bathroom and kitchen are white. Lydia says she can’t bear any other colour, not on the furniture or on the walls. She has put a single photo up on the wall with two pins, over the sink in the kitchen, next to the white tiles; it’s one Lydia’s mother took of Lydia and me back then, with no heads. The picture isn’t of us; it’s of our new dresses on us, the fabric with its pattern full of flowers, tiny flowers. Even without the heads you can tell who’s who straight away, if only by how we hold our hands, each in her own way. My hands are clenched; it looks like I want to hide them, pull them back. Lydia’s hands are open, moving even while she stands still. Lydia says: Do you remember – those catalogues? She tries to smile but it looks like she’s angry still. Pretty little dresses, Lydia’s mother used to call them, and Lydia called them that too, though in a very different tone, and I’m quite sure that Lydia’s mother, when she was taking that photo, did not want Lydia’s face to be in it, nor the look in her eyes, just the dresses, which fit us for more than one summer and which we wore with skinny plastic belts and grey cardigans. In one corner, in thick pencil, Lydia has written: Lydia and Vicki – beautiful, even with no heads.
She walks around the apartment, makes coffee, says: Do you still take it that way? Then she says she has a ring for me, a ring she designed herself, just for me, in pale blue, because blue was my colour, blue like the blue of the sky back then, that blue that never stopped changing, it was exactly that blue – did I remember? I slip the ring over my finger, wondering how she managed, after all these years, to design a ring for me, to craft it here under her little white lamp, with her little pliers, a ring wrought of wires and stones I can see through, and I like it immediately because it has my blue, and it fits straight away, and Lydia says, it looks lovely, the ring, on you, on your finger. And she studies my hands as only she can, her eyes a little smaller than usual, her head to one side, her hands on her hips.
Lydia looks the way she looks because she doesn’t eat, because she suppresses her hunger, because she puts cotton wool soaked in herbal tea into her mouth if I don’t stop her. Her little fridge is empty, almost entirely empty – a bottle of juice, long past its sell-by date, and a gel mask Lydia puts on her eyelids in the mornings, when she drinks her de-caffeinated coffee in her white bathrobe, her wet hair in a white towel turban, her feet in white towelling slippers with her varnished white toenails peeking out. When she sits like this in the mornings, across from me, by this sash window, which has white glazing bars and which Lydia opens after every third, fourth cigarette, then I cannot help thinking that we will not see old age, the two of us, at least not the way Lydia envisaged it back then, shortly before she left: herself and myself, old and stooped, holding on, holding on to each other. Later, at intervals throughout the day, it is that one sentence that keeps coming back into my head: We will not see old age.
I find myself thinking it again when we leave the apartment and Lydia goes charging from one shop to the other, from one coffee shop to the next, in and out, the entrance bell announcing us, then her loud hello-o-o with the long, fading O the way only Lydia can say it, this hello-o-o that seems part invitation, part challenge, but also part threat, as if everyone else were only there to amuse her. We will not see old age, I think, perhaps because Lydia does not seem the sort of person who grows old, who sooner or later looks old, who allows wrinkles to appear in her face; I am thinking this now, as I watch her walk diagonally across the floor of this shop, with her Jackie O sunglasses, that strand of highlighted hair stuck to her forehead, that little black suit with the skirt cut just below the knee but still showing enough leg to make me feel slightly sick, perhaps because her legs are the way they are, and those shoes with the high heels and the straps around her bony ankles that divide Lydia’s legs into a top and a bottom part.
Back then, at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, when we had each other every day, every hour, it never bothered me when people took Lydia and me for a couple. I liked the fact that people thought I could be with someone like Lydia, that Lydia would want someone like me. It amused us to spread rumours and lies and stories, and we laughed when other people believed us, when they whispered and giggled behind our backs and pointed at us. But now it bothers me, for the first time, that people might take us for a couple; it bothers me in all the cafés and all the shops, every time Lydia opens a door and the entrance bell rings and people turn to look at us, at Lydia and me.
We go for a cup of tea, which is served in a silver teapot, with scones that Lydia doesn’t even touch. Later we take a walk through a big park, because I insist on it, and Lydia looks bored there, with no people, no shops. Leaves flutter down, yellow and brown autumn leaves. There’s a leaf in your hair, I say, d’you want me to get it? Lydia nods, I pick the leaf out of her hair, a little red one; I show it to her, then it flutters to the ground at our feet. A boy wearing one of those short, dark coats children wear here is running across the grass, this lush, bright green grass, holding a line in his hand. His kite is flying in a colourless sky, way up high, like the kites we used to see back then, when we lay on the concrete at the harbour, our arms crossed behind our heads. Lydia stands still, looking up at this pink kite; a gust of wind catches it, and it pulls and drags the boy, who grows smaller and smaller, running faster and faster, and we stand like that for a while until Lydia says, it looks like it wants to lift him up and away.
I wash my hands, scrubbing them.
They still smell of shit.
Sophie went joyfully down the slide, straight into Danny’s waiting arms. When he
offered to help her climb back up, she said, “By myself.”
He clapped. “That’s my big girl!” and returned to sit beside me on the bench, his hand on my left thigh. To my right, Sophie’s travel potty, still unused in its package.
It had been three days since Sophie announced: no more diapers. Festive and excited, we also bought a pink home potty, a plastic ladder for climbing to the toilet, and twenty pairs of size-3 Frozen underwear.
“Should I check if the sitter’s available tonight?” he asked.
That first day, Danny understood my good intensions, but suggested that if I kept asking her if she needed to poop every two minutes, she’d think it was some big deal. Yesterday he was enraged when he heard me promising her a pizza if she went in the potty. Why offer rewards for a natural process?
Now, on the bench at the playground, I said, “She hasn’t pooped in three days,” not looking at him. Not at preschool, not at home. We shouldn’t go out.”
He took a deep breath, trying to hide his criticism, “You think she’s in pain?”
Sophie was spinning another girl on the merry-go-round.
“Not yet,” I said. “But I’ve been reading about toilet anxiety. It’s a fear kids develop during potty training. They hold it in, then they get constipated, and then when they finally let it out it hurts, and it becomes a traumatic exper-”
“What?” Danny laughed. “Toilet anxiety?”
“It can end with an enema or even surgery, Danny. The experts suggest giving a gentle laxative. Not that we’re there yet.”
Now the other girl was spinning Sophie.
“How about a break from Facebook?” he smiled. “It’s like diagnosing yourself with cancer on Google.”
“I wish we had friends with children.”
“If you’re so worried you should call Dr. Barak.”
“I will, but I want to learn from other mothers’ experiences first.”
“It’s sort of like looking for proble-”
“There is a problem.” I glared at him. “And you’re ignoring it. And me.”
He raised an eyebrow, then dialed on speakerphone.
“No cause for concern,” the doctor assured us.
Danny looked at me victoriously.
“A child can hold it in even for ten days without any health risks, and possibly without constipation-”
“But how can we even tell if she’s ready?” I blurted. “Maybe we should offer her a diaper only for pooping?”
“After your whole ‘big girl’ shtick?” Danny barked. “Are you nuts?”
“I don’t know,” I hissed. “At least I’m trying to figure this out.”
“But Dr. Barak just gave you another week’s worth of peace of mind!”
Dr. Barak coughed.
Danny smiled at the phone. “Turns out my wife can’t control everything.”
Dr. Barak laughed. “Well, that’s a problem for another doctor.”
That night, his hand searched in the dark for my breasts. I whispered that I was tired.
He moved my hair from my face. “She’s going to be fine,” he said, rubbing my stomach. I blocked his hand with mine.
“Okay, good night.” He turned over, disappointed.
When his breathing slowed I burrowed under the blanket, losing myself in my phone. Suddenly, he glanced over my shoulder, then recoiled with insult when he noticed my choice. I tried to appease him with an embrace.
He pulled away. “Go fuck your iPhone.”
Sophie had her second helping of Cornflakes. Six days. Where was all that food going? I pictured a dark, dense lump of food in her small stomach.
“Can I have chocolate milk?”
For a moment, I couldn’t remember if Danny was still home. We spoke so briefly. He was right across the room, stuck at his computer. I turned around and quickly stirred the powder into Sophie’s chocolate milk. I hid the bottle.
“Baby,” Danny kissed her forehead. “Let’s go to school.”
That night, Danny waited for me in the kitchen after Sophie finally fell asleep, his arms crossed.
“Ilana found Sophie crying in the bathroom, covered in poop,” he announced coldly. I gaped. “Diarrhea, to be exact. Surrounded by dirty wipes. A huge mess. She tried to clean it up—”
My heart was racing. I flushed with heat. “Why are you only telling me this now?” I cried. “Why didn’t Ilana call me?”
“Did you give her something?”
He fixed his eyes on me. My pulse pounded in my temples.
“Laxative? Gentle laxative? Like you mentioned the other day?”
“Of course not!”
He kept his eyes on me until I heard my trembling voice confessing.
“It was a natural remedy… just a stool softener..Tears filled my eyes.
“Bravo,” he almost gloated, “Now she’s ripe for toilet anxiety.”
“Thanks a lot, Danny,” I said. “Maybe I should have lied to you.”
My hand shook as I stroked Sophie’s hair. The image of her in the bathroom flushing me, “I’m sorry” I whispered over and over into her sleeping face. I curled up in her little bed, staring up at the stars on the ceiling. My phone vibrated.
A Messenger alert.
It had been two years since we’d last met. Three days since my last visit to his Facebook page. Two days since I wrote him. The anticipation of a response had transformed into insult from his silence, then into the realization that I should never have written him, and a hope that he’d never answer. But now Ron had.
How long have I been on this bathroom floor? I had my regular spot and position.
Sophie towered above me on the toilet seat.
Ron said she wasn’t likely to go at preschool, so she’d better be in a safe space in case the poop came. Racked with guilt, I picked her up from school every day at one instead of four. Long days. Lunch, bathroom, television, bathroom, snack, bathroom, playground, bathroom. She never resisted it, nor did she ever do her business. We’d watched everything on YouTube. Read every book on the shelf. I’d come up with every dumb rhyme about how pooping was fun. “Mom, can I get off now?” “Let’s try a little longer.”
We were reading Olivia for the hundredth time. You’ll grow old on the bathroom floor. You’ll die here. But now, suddenly, Sophie flinched above me. I jumped. Her elbows squeezed against her stomach. “It hurts,” she whined, gasping. “It hurts.”
“Sure it hurts, sweetie,” I said, relieved. “You just need to poop.”
“I don’t.” Tears ran down her cheeks.
“There’s poop in your stomach and it wants to come out. Come on, give a little push,” I said.
She began to get off the toilet.
I sat her back down, firmly. “You’re not getting off until you poop.”
She started to get off again, and I sat her back, again. “Let’s go, right now. Do it already! Now! Push! Come on!”
She squirmed with stubborn refusal in my arms, kicking me, then biting me as hard as she could, crying hysterically.
I sat her down, furious. “You’re doing it, end of discussion! If you don’t poop you’ll get a time-out!”
She screamed, “Daddy!”
But there he was. He picked her up over my head and pulled up her underwear and leggings.
“What are you doing?! Her stomach hurts, she’s got to poop!” I tried to rip her away from him, but he held her tight and fast, evading me.
“Go take a walk,” he said. “Calm down.” Then he turned away from me and asked Sophie, “Want to play with your dolls?”
“No, she wants to poop,” I moaned. But they’d already disappeared into her bedroom before my defeated eyes.
My phone vibrated in my pocket.
That night as I read her a bedtime story, she began to writhe with pain again. I tensed up but continued to read, glossing faster and faster over the sweet, glittering prose. She fell asleep before we reached the happy ending. A cloud of pain rested on her face. Exhausted, I put my head in my hands.
Suddenly, I smelled something foul. When I noticed her expression—finally peaceful—I figured it out. I pulled off her underwear carefully and threw it in the garbage. I wiped her off. She didn’t even wake up.
I walked into the bedroom, wiping the sweat from my brow. “She pooped in her underwear,” I sighed.
Danny looked at me. “Is that good or bad?”
“At least she went.”
“But what does Ron have to say about it?”
I swallowed, recounting our correspondence, my deleted messages. What had he seen?
“Since when are you two back in touch?”
“Since when do you go through my phone?”
“Since I have a reason to.”
“How dare you?”
“You want to talk to me about morals?”
“There’s nothing going on. He’s a child psychologist.”
“For a therapy session, you’ve erased quite a bit of it.”
“Because I knew you’d get pissed off.”
“Sure. It’s my fault.”
“I wanted to get his opinion about Sophie. That’s all.”
“Does he call all his patients ‘babe’?”
“Jesus. It’s just a nickname… Never mind. I’ll tell him it’s over.”
He looked at me. “Hasn’t it been over for two years?”
“I meant the messaging.” I plopped down onto the bed. “I’m so tired.”
“You said you’d leave the studio to think things over, take some time off,” he said. “All you end up dealing with is poop. Or Ron.”
“How long has it been since we last fucked?” He punched the pillow. “A month? Longer?”
“I envy you for being able to think about sex.”
“Don’t give me that shit. Like you don’t think about sex when you talk to Ron.”
“He’s a child psychologist.”
A Google Calendar alert from Danny: “Appointment with Dr. Shafir, early childhood psychologist. Number one in her field. She has a cancellation tomorrow.”
I texted back a thumb’s up emoji and returned to Messenger.
My body hurt from sleeping on the thin mattress in Sophie’s room, staking out her nighttime poop.
Dr. Shafir explained, “Poop is a source of control. It’s natural that she’s only going in her sleep.” Her beautiful face beamed at us. “What area of her life won’t you let go of?”
Danny pounced at the question. A familiar, foul smell attacked my nostrils. Distractedly, I brought my fingers to my nose. I’d washed my hands twice at home, and again when I got here. Still, I smelled like shit.
She said, “Stay out of her underwear. Her poop is none of your business.” Her eyes moved from Danny’s excited face to me.
I got a whiff of her shampoo and inhaled, but my stench wouldn’t let go. My fingertips, my palm, under my nails. They needed to be scrubbed with a toothbrush. “Stop saying poop,” I said. “It isn’t poop, it’s shit.”
They were silent. Then Danny turned to me, “Are you willing to try this or not?”
I stayed out of her underwear. But I recognized the moment. The flinching. The concentration. The effort. The fleeing to a hidden corner like an animal. I kept repeating, It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. I emptied her underwear. Boiling water. Bleach. Or the garbage. The bathroom became superfluous. The potty and the ladder were monuments. It only happened in the daytime now, so Danny was miraculously spared from dealing with it. It’s okay, you’ll make it to the bathroom next time. The smell didn’t leave me, even when I burned my hands in the hot water. It was in my blood.
One night, our eyes met in the bathroom mirror. Me carrying smelly underwear; he a toothbrush. I wanted to kiss and make up, but instead I shoved the underwear in his hands defiantly. “Here. You deal with this.”
He took it, expressionless, wrapped it up in a plastic bag, and threw it in the trash.
I yelled, “Can’t you see this isn’t working?”
“We’ve made a commitment to try it, and it takes time,” he reminded and reprimanded me. “If we change course now we’ll drive Sophie crazy.”
“Same deal.” The lips that used to kiss me were now talking about shit. “You put her to bed when you know she’s tired, feed her when you know she’s hungry. She can’t get off the potty when you know she has to go. Five minutes. Time it. If she goes, great. If not—”
Ron had a beard now. I knew he grew it to hide old acne scars. Four years. What was he thinking now, looking at me but only discussing my daughter, Danny’s daughter?
The voice that used to call me ‘babe’ now emphasized the importance of consistency and patience. I rested my head in my hand. The smell flooded my airways again.
“Can you take some time off to devote to this?”
“I am taking time off,” I said. “I’ve left the studio.”
“Really? Where did you move to?” I recognized his instant regret at asking a personal question.
“Nowhere. I just wasn’t happy there.”
“Anyway,” he got back on track, “those five minutes are not about fun and games. No books, no phone. She’s supposed to get bored, so she’s motivated to—” “Ron.”
He looked at me tentatively.
“Do my hands smell like shit?”
I reached out my hands. He stared at me for a moment, hesitant, but finally took them in his, bringing them to his nose, sniffing from a safe distance. “They smell like patchouli. It’s from the hand soap in the bathroom. It’s nice.”
I grabbed his hands as they pulled away. Don’t go.
They covered my face.
I wept into them.
We couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning in harmony, so that we never came face to face. Back to face. Face to back.
“I met with Ron,” I finally said.
The rustle of the sheets paused. The reading light went on. “Why?” In his voice I heard the anticipation of an excuse.
“Because I wanted to see him.”
His face paled. His eyes fell away from mine.
“I wrote to him because of Sophie, but I knew we’d end up meeting.”
He said nothing, but his eyes bounced around. Lots of questions.
“I don’t know if it’s about him, or just about feeling like a normal woman. Or tenderness. Something we don’t have.”
A paralyzing silence fell over us.
Suddenly, we heard footsteps. We watched the door vigilantly, expecting Sophie’s sleepy face and small body to climb into bed with us. Instead, we saw the bathroom light go on.
We heard the squeak of plastic against tile. Danny put his hand on my arm to keep me still. I looked at his skin touching mine. Silence. Then another plastic squeak, followed by her footsteps. Silence again.
We walked together to the bathroom and stared at the full potty.
“As long as there’s the sun … the sun!” the voice of Don Peppino Quaglia crooned softly near the doorway of the low, dark, basement apartment. “Leave it to God,” answered the humble and faintly cheerful voice of his wife, Rosa, from inside; she was in bed, moaning in pain from arthritis, complicated by heart disease, and, addressing her sister-in-law, who was in the bathroom, she added: “You know what I’ll do, Nunziata? Later I’ll get up and take the clothes out of the water.”
“Do as you like, to me it seems real madness,” replied the curt, sad voice of Nunziata from that den. “With the pain you have, one more day in bed wouldn’t hurt you!” A silence. “We’ve got to put out some more poison, I found a cockroach in my sleeve this morning.”
From the cot at the back of the room, which was really a cave, with a low vault of dangling spider webs, rose the small, calm voice of Eugenia:
“Mamma, today I’m putting on the eyeglasses.”
There was a kind of secret joy in the modest voice of the child, Don Peppino’s third-born. (The first two, Carmela and Luisella, were with the nuns, and would soon take the veil, having been persuaded that this life is a punishment; and the two little ones, Pasqualino and Teresella, were still snoring, as they slept feet to head, in their mother’s bed.)
“Yes, and no doubt you’ll break them right away,” the voice of her aunt, still irritated, insisted, from behind the door of the little room. She made everyone suffer for the disappointments of her life, first among them that she wasn’t married and had to be subject, as she told it, to the charity of her sister-in-law, although she didn’t fail to add that she dedicated this humiliation to God. She had something of her own set aside, however, and wasn’t a bad person, since she had offered to have glasses made for Eugenia when at home they had realized that the child couldn’t see. “With what they cost! A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” she added. Then they heard the water running in the basin. She was washing her face, squeezing her eyes, which were full of soap, and Eugenia gave up answering.
Besides, she was too, too pleased.
A week earlier, she had gone with her aunt to an optician on Via Roma. There, in that elegant shop, full of polished tables and with a marvelous green reflection pouring in through a blind, the doctor had measured her sight, making her read many times, through certain lenses that he kept changing, entire columns of letters of the alphabet, printed on a card, some as big as boxes, others as tiny as pins. “This poor girl is almost blind,” he had said then, with a kind of pity, to her aunt, “she should no longer be deprived of lenses.” And right away, while Eugenia, sitting on a stool, waited anxiously, he had placed over her eyes another pair of lenses, with a white metal frame, and had said: “Now look into the street.” Eugenia stood up, her legs trembling with emotion, and was unable to suppress a little cry of joy. On the sidewalk, so many well-dressed people were passing, slightly smaller than normal but very distinct: ladies in silk dresses with powdered faces, young men with long hair and bright-colored sweaters, white-bearded old men with pink hands resting on silver-handled canes; and, in the middle of the street, some beautiful automobiles that looked like toys, their bodies painted red or teal, all shiny; green trolleys as big as houses, with their windows lowered, and behind the windows so many people in elegant clothes. Across the street, on the opposite sidewalk, were beautiful shops, with windows like mirrors, full of things so fine they elicited a kind of longing; some shop boys in black aprons were polishing the windows from the street. At a café with red and yellow tables, some golden-haired girls were sitting outside, legs crossed. They laughed and drank from big colored glasses. Above the café, because it was already spring, the balcony windows were open and embroidered curtains swayed, and behind the curtains were fragments of blue and gilded paintings, and heavy, sparkling chandeliers of gold and crystal, like baskets of artificial fruit. A marvel. Transported by all that splendor, she hadn’t followed the conversation between the doctor and her aunt. Her aunt, in the brown dress she wore to Mass, and standing back from the glass counter with a timidity unnatural to her, now broached the question of the cost: “Doctor, please, give us a good price … we’re poor folk ..” and when she heard “eight thousand lire” she nearly fainted.
“Two lenses! What are you saying! Jesus Mary!”
“Look, ignorant people …” the doctor answered, replacing the other lenses after polishing them with the glove, “don’t calculate anything. And when you give the child two lenses, you’ll be able to tell me if she sees better. She takes nine diopters on one side, and ten on the other, if you want to know. She’s almost blind.”
While the doctor was writing the child’s first and last name—“Eugenia Quaglia, Vicolo della Cupa at Santa Maria in Portico”—Nunziata had gone over to Eugenia, who, standing in the doorway of the shop and holding up the glasses in her small, sweaty hands, was not at all tired of gazing through them: “Look, look, my dear! See what your consolation costs! Eight thousand lire, did you hear? A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” She was almost suffocating. Eugenia had turned all red, not so much because of the rebuke as because the young woman at the cash register was looking at her, while her aunt was making that observation, which declared the family’s poverty. She took off the glasses.
“But how is it, so young and already so nearsighted?” the young woman had asked Nunziata, while she signed the receipt for the deposit. “And so shabby, too!” she added.
“Young lady, in our house we all have good eyes, this is a misfortune that came upon us … along with the rest. God rubs salt in the wound.”
“Come back in eight days,” the doctor had said. “I’ll have them for you.”
Leaving, Eugenia had tripped on the step.
“Thank you, Aunt Nunzia,” she had said after a while. “I’m always rude to you. I talk back to you, and you are so kind, buying me eyeglasses.”
Her voice trembled.
“My child, it’s better not to see the world than to see it,” Nunziata had answered with sudden melancholy.
Eugenia hadn’t answered her that time, either. Aunt Nunzia was often so strange, she wept and shouted for no good reason, she said so many bad words, and yet she went to Mass regularly, she was a good Christian, and when it came to helping someone in trouble she always volunteered, wholeheartedly. One didn’t have to watch over her.
Since that day, Eugenia had lived in a kind of rapture, waiting for the blessed glasses that would allow her to see all people and things in their tiny details. Until then, she had been wrapped in a fog: the room where she lived, the courtyard always full of hanging laundry, the alley overflowing with colors and cries, everything for her was covered by a thin veil: she knew well only the faces of her family, especially her mother and her siblings, because often she slept with them, and sometimes she woke at night and, in the light of the oil lamp, looked at them. Her mother slept with her mouth open, her broken yellow teeth visible; her brother and sister, Pasqualino and Teresella, were always dirty and snot-nosed and covered with boils: when they slept, they made a strange noise, as if they had wild animals inside them. Sometimes Eugenia surprised herself by staring at them, without understanding, however, what she was thinking. She had a confused feeling that beyond that room always full of wet laundry, with broken chairs and a stinking toilet, there was light, sounds, beautiful things, and in that moment when she had put on the glasses she had had a true revelation: the world outside was beautiful, very beautiful.
“Marchesa, my respects.”
That was the voice of her father. Covered by a ragged shirt, his back, which until that moment had been framed by the doorway of the basement apartment, could no longer be seen. The voice of the marchesa, a placid and indifferent voice, now said:
“You must do me a favor, Don Peppino.”
“At your service … your wish is my command.”
Silently, Eugenia slid out of bed, put on her dress, and, still barefoot, went to the door. The pure and marvelous early morning sun, entering the ugly courtyard through a crack between the buildings, greeted her, lit up her little old lady’s face, her stubbly, disheveled hair, her rough, hard little hands, with their long, dirty nails. Oh, if only at that moment she could have had the eyeglasses! The marchesa was there, in her black silk dress with its white lace neckpiece. Her imposing yet benign appearance enchanted Eugenia, along with her bejeweled white hands; but she couldn’t see her face very well—it was a whitish oval patch. Above it, some purple feathers quivered.
“Listen, you have to redo the child’s mattress. Can you come up around ten-thirty?”
“With all my heart, but I’m only available in the afternoon, Signora Marchesa.”
“No, Don Peppino, it has to be this morning. In the afternoon people are coming. Set yourself up on the terrace and work. Don’t play hard to get … do me this favor … Now it’s time for Mass. At ten-thirty, call me.”
And without waiting for an answer, she left, astutely avoiding a trickle of yellow water that was dripping down from a terrace and had made a puddle on the ground.
“Papa,” said Eugenia, following her father, as he went back inside, “how good the marchesa is! She treats you like a gentleman. God should reward her for it.”
“A good Christian, that one is,” Don Peppino answered, with a meaning completely different from what might have been understood. With the excuse that she was the owner of the house, the Marchesa D’Avanzo constantly had the people in the courtyard serving her: to Don Peppino, she gave a wretched sum for the mattresses; and Rosa was always available for the big sheets; even if her bones were burning she had to get up to serve the marchesa. It’s true that the marchesa had placed her daughters in the convent, and so had saved two souls from the dangers of this world, which for the poor are many, but for that basement space, where everyone was sick, she collected three thousand lire, not one less. “The heart is there, it’s the money that’s lacking,” she loved to repeat, with a certain imperturbability. “Today, dear Don Peppino, you are the nobility, who have no worries … Thank … thank Providence, which has put you in such a condition … which wanted to save you.” Donna Rosa had a kind of adoration for the marchesa, for her religious sentiments; when they saw each other, they always talked about the afterlife. The marchesa didn’t much believe in it, but she didn’t say so, and urged that mother of the family to be patient and to hope.
From the bed, Donna Rosa asked, a little worried: “Did you talk to her?”
“She wants me to redo the mattress for her grandson,” said Don Peppino, in annoyance. He brought out the hot plate to warm up some coffee, a gift of the nuns, and went back inside to fetch water in a small pot. “I won’t do it for less than five hundred,” he said.
“It’s a fair price.”
“And then who will go and pick up Eugenia’s glasses?” Aunt Nunzia asked, coming out of the bathroom. Over her nightgown, she wore a torn skirt, and on her feet slippers. Her bony shoulders emerged from the nightgown, gray as stones. She was drying her face with a napkin. “I can’t go, and Rosa is ill.”
Without anyone noticing, Eugenia’s large, almost blind eyes filled with tears. Now maybe another day would pass without her eyeglasses. She went up to her mother’s bed, and in a pitiful manner, flung her arms and forehead on the blanket. Donna Rosa stretched out a hand to caress her.
“I’ll go, Nunzia, don’t get worked up … In fact, going out will do me good.”
Eugenia kissed her hand.
Around eight there was a great commotion in the courtyard. At that moment Rosa had come out of the doorway: a tall, lanky figure, in a short, stained black coat, without shoulder pads, that exposed her legs, like wooden sticks. Under her arm, she carried a shopping bag for the bread she would buy on her way home from the optician. Don Peppino was pushing the water out of the middle of the courtyard with a long-handled broom, a vain task because the tub was continually leaking, like an open vein. In it were the clothes of two families: the Greborio sisters, on the second floor, and the wife of Cavaliere Amodio, who had given birth two days earlier. The Greborios’ servant, Lina Tarallo, was beating the carpets on a balcony, making a terrible ruckus. The dust, mixed with garbage, descended gradually like a cloud on those poor people, but no one paid attention. Sharp screams and cries of complaint could be heard from the basement where Aunt Nunzia was calling on all the saints as witnesses to confirm that she was unfortunate, and the cause of all this was Pasqualino, who wept and shouted like a condemned man because he wanted to go with his mamma. “Look at him, this scoundrel,” cried Aunt Nunzia. “Madonna bella, do me a favor, let me die, but immediately, if you’re there, since in this life only thieves and whores thrive.” Teresella, born the year the king went away and so younger than her brother, was sitting in the doorway, smiling, and every so often she licked a crust of bread she had found under a chair.
Eugenia was sitting on the step of another basement room, where Mariuccia the porter lived, looking at a section of a children’s comic, with lots of bright-colored figures, which had fallen from the fourth floor. She held it right up to her face, because otherwise she couldn’t read the words. There was a small blue river in a vast meadow and a red boat going … going … who knows where. It was written in proper Italian, and so she didn’t understand much, but every so often, for no reason, she laughed.
“So, today you put on your glasses?” said Mariuccia, looking out from behind her. Everyone in the courtyard knew, partly because Eugenia hadn’t resisted the temptation to talk about it, and partly because Aunt Nunzia had found it necessary to let it be understood that in that family she was spending her own … and well, in short .
“Your aunt got them for you, eh?” Mariuccia added, smiling good-humoredly. She was a small woman, almost a dwarf, with a face like a man’s, covered with whiskers. At the moment she was combing her long black hair, which came to her knees: one of the few things that attested to her being a woman. She was combing it slowly, smiling with her sly but kind little mouse eyes.
“Mamma went to get them on Via Roma,” said Eugenia with a look of gratitude. “We paid a grand total of a good eight thousand lire, you know? Really. my aunt is .” she was about to add “truly a good person,” when Aunt Nunzia, looking out of the basement room, called angrily: “Eugenia!”
“Here I am, Aunt!” and she scampered away like a dog.
Behind their aunt, Pasqualino, all red-faced and bewildered, with a terrible expression somewhere between disdain and surprise, was waiting.
“Go and buy two candies for three lire each, from Don Vincenzo at the tobacco store. Come back immediately!”
She clutched the money in her fist, paying no more attention to the comic, and hurried out of the courtyard.
By a true miracle she avoided a towering vegetable cart drawn by two horses, which was coming toward her right outside the main entrance. The carter, with his whip unsheathed, seemed to be singing, and from his mouth came these words:
“Lovely … Fresh,” drawn out and full of sweetness, like a love song. When the cart was behind her, Eugenia, raising her protruding eyes, basked in that warm blue glow that was the sky, and heard the great hubbub all around her, without, however, seeing it clearly. Carts, one behind the other, big trucks with Americans dressed in yellow hanging out the windows, bicycles that seemed to be tumbling over. High up, all the balconies were cluttered with flower crates, and over the railings, like flags or saddle blankets, hung yellow and red quilts, ragged blue children’s clothes, sheets, pillows, and mattresses exposed to the air, while at the end of the alley ropes uncoiled, lowering baskets to pick up the vegetables or fish offered by peddlers. Although the sun touched only the highest balconies (the street a crack in the disorderly mass of buildings) and the rest was only shadow and garbage, one could sense, behind it, the enormous celebration of spring. And even Eugenia, so small and pale, bound like a mouse to the mud of her courtyard, began to breathe rapidly, as if that air, that celebration, and all that blue suspended over the neighborhood of the poor were also hers. The yellow basket of the Amodios’ maid, Rosaria Buonincontri, grazed her as she went into the tobacco shop. Rosaria was a fat woman in black, with white legs and a flushed, placid face.
“Tell your mamma if she can come upstairs a moment today, Signora Amodio needs her to deliver a message.”
Eugenia recognized her by her voice. “She’s not here now. She went to Via Roma to get my glasses.”
“I should wear them, too, but my boyfriend doesn’t want me to.”
Eugenia didn’t grasp the meaning of that prohibition. She answered only, ingenuously: “They cost a great amount; you have to take very good care of them.”
They entered Don Vincenzo’s hole-in-the-wall together.
There was a crowd. Eugenia kept being pushed back. “Go on … you really are blind,” observed the Amodios’ maid, with a kind smile.
“But now Aunt Nunzia’s gotten you some eyeglasses,” Don Vincenzo, who had heard her, broke in, winking, with an air of teasing comprehension. He, too, wore glasses.
“At your age,” he said, handing her the candies, “I could see like a cat, I could thread needles at night, my grandmother always wanted me nearby … but now I’m old.”
Eugenia nodded vaguely. “My friends. none of them have lenses,” she said. Then, turning to the servant Rosaria, but speaking also for Don Vincenzo’s benefit: “Just me. Nine diopters on one side and ten on the other. I am almost blind!” she said emphatically, sweetly.
“See how lucky you are,” said Don Vincenzo, smiling, and to Rosaria: “How much salt?”
“Poor child!” the Amodios’ maid commented as Eugenia left, happily. “It’s the dampness that’s ruined her. In that building it rains on us. Now Donna Rosa’s bones ache. Give me a kilo of coarse salt and a packet of fine … ”
“There you are.”
“What a morning, eh, today, Don Vincenzo? It seems like summer already.”
Walking more slowly than she had on the way there, Eugenia, without even realizing it, began to unwrap one of the two candies, and then put it in her mouth. It tasted of lemon. “I’ll tell Aunt Nunzia that I lost it on the way,” she proposed to herself. She was happy, it didn’t matter to her if her aunt, good as she was, got angry. She felt someone take her hand, and recognized Luigino.
“You are really blind!” the boy said laughing. “And the glasses?”
“Mamma went to Via Roma to get them.”
“I didn’t go to school; it’s a beautiful day, why don’t we take a little walk?”
“You’re crazy! Today I have to be good.”
Luigino looked at her and laughed, with his mouth like a money box, stretching to his ears, contemptuous.
“What a rat’s nest.”
Instinctively Eugenia brought a hand to her hair.
“I can’t see well, and Mamma doesn’t have time,” she answered meekly.
“What are the glasses like? With gold frames?” Luigino asked. “All gold!” Eugenia answered, lying. “Bright and shiny!”
“Old women wear glasses,” said Luigino.
“Also ladies, I saw them on Via Roma.”
“Those are dark glasses, for sunbathing,” Luigino insisted. “You’re just jealous. They cost eight thousand lire.”
“When you have them, let me see them,” said Luigino. “I want to see if the frame really is gold. You’re such a liar,” and he went off on his own business, whistling.
Reentering the courtyard, Eugenia wondered anxiously if her glasses would or wouldn’t have a gold frame. In the negative case, what could she say to Luigino to convince him that they were a thing of value? But what a beautiful day! Maybe Mamma was about to return with the glasses wrapped in a package. Soon she would have them on her face. She would have … A frenzy of blows fell on her head. A real fury. She seemed to collapse; in vain she defended herself with her hands. It was Aunt Nunzia, of course, furious because of her delay, and behind Aunt Nunzia was Pasqualino, like a madman, because he didn’t believe her story about the candies. “Bloodsucker! You ugly little blind girl! And I who gave my life for this ingratitude … You’ll come to a bad end! Eight thousand lire no less. They bleed me dry, these scoundrels.”
She let her hands fall, only to burst into a great lament. “Our Lady of Sorrows, holy Jesus, by the wounds in your ribs let me die!”
Eugenia wept, too, in torrents.
“Aunt, forgive me. Aunt .”
“Uh . uh . uh .” said Pasqualino, his mouth wide open.
“Poor child,” said Donna Mariuccia, coming over to Eugenia, who didn’t know where to hide her face, now streaked with red and tears at her aunt’s rage. “She didn’t do it on purpose, Nunzia, calm down,” and to Eugenia: “Where’ve you got the candies?”
Eugenia answered softly, hopelessly, holding out one in her dirty hand: “I ate the other. I was hungry.”
Before her aunt could move again, to attack the child, the voice of the marchesa could be heard, from the fourth floor, where there was sun, calling softly, placidly, sweetly:
Aunt Nunzia looked up, her face pained as that of the Madonna of the Seven Sorrows, which was at the head of her bed.
“Today is the first Friday of the month. Dedicate it to God.”
“Marchesa, how good you are! These kids make me commit so many sins, I’m losing my mind, I …” And she collapsed her face between her paw-like hands, the hands of a worker, with brown, scaly skin.
“Is your brother not there?”
“Poor Aunt, she got you the eyeglasses, and that’s how you thank her,” said Mariuccia meanwhile to Eugenia, who was trembling.
“Yes, signora, here I am,” answered Don Peppino, who until that moment had been half hidden behind the door of the basement room, waving a paper in front of the stove where the beans for lunch were cooking.
“Can you come up?”
“My wife went to get the eyeglasses for Eugenia. I’m watching the beans. Would you wait, if you don’t mind.”
“Then send up the child. I have a dress for Nunziata. I want to give it to her.”
“May God reward you … very grateful,” answered Don Peppino, with a sigh of consolation, because that was the only thing that could calm his sister. But looking at Nunziata, he realized that she wasn’t at all cheered up. She continued to weep desperately, and that weeping had so stunned Pasqualino that the child had become quiet as if by magic, and was now licking the snot that dripped from his nose, with a small, sweet smile.
“Did you hear? Go up to the Signora Marchesa, she has a dress to give you,” said Don Peppino to his daughter.
Eugenia was looking at something in the void, with her eyes that couldn’t see: they were staring, fixed and large. She winced, and got up immediately, obedient.
“Say to her: ‘May God reward you,’ and stay outside the door.”
“Believe me, Mariuccia,” said Aunt Nunzia, when Eugenia had gone off, “I love that little creature, and afterward I’m sorry, as God is my witness, for scolding her. But I feel all the blood go to my head, believe me, when I have to fight with the kids. Youth is gone, as you see,” and she touched her hollow cheeks. “Sometimes I feel like a madwoman.”
“On the other hand, they have to vent, too,” Donna Mariuccia answered. “They’re innocent souls. They need time to weep. When I look at them, and think how they’ll become just like us.” She went to get a broom and swept a cabbage leaf out of the doorway. “I wonder what God is doing.”
“It’s new, brand-new! You hardly wore it!” said Eugenia, sticking her nose in the green dress lying on the sofa in the kitchen, while the marchesa went looking for an old newspaper to wrap it in.
The marchesa thought that the child really couldn’t see, because otherwise she would have realized that the dress was very old and full of patches (it had belonged to her dead sister), but she refrained from commenting. Only after a moment, as she was coming in with the newspaper, she asked:
“And the eyeglasses your aunt got you? Are they new?”
“With gold frames. They cost eight thousand lire,” Eugenia answered all in one breath, becoming emotional again at the thought of the honor she had received, “because I’m almost blind,” she added simply.
“In my opinion,” said the marchesa, carefully wrapping the dress in the newspaper, and then reopening the package because a sleeve was sticking out, “your aunt could have saved her money. I saw some very good eyeglasses in a shop near the Church of the Ascension, for only two thousand lire.”
Eugenia blushed fiery red. She understood that the marchesa was displeased. “Each to his own position in life. We all must know our limitations,” she had heard her say this many times, talking to Donna Rosa, when she brought her the washed clothes, and stayed to complain of her poverty.
“Maybe they weren’t good enough. I have nine diopters,” she replied timidly.
The marchesa arched an eyebrow, but luckily Eugenia didn’t see it.
“They were good, I’m telling you,” the Marchesa said obstinately, in a slightly harsher voice. Then she was sorry. “My dear,” she said more gently, “I’m saying this because I know the troubles you have in your household. With that difference of six thousand lire, you could buy bread for ten days, you could buy… What’s the use to you of seeing better? Given what’s around you!” A silence. “To read, maybe, but do you read?”
“But sometimes I’ve seen you with your nose in a book. A liar as well, my dear. That is no good.”
Eugenia didn’t answer again. She felt truly desperate, staring at the dress with her nearly white eyes.
“Is it silk?” she asked stupidly.
The marchesa looked at her, reflecting.
“You don’t deserve it, but I want to give you a little gift,” she said suddenly, and headed toward a white wooden wardrobe. At that moment the telephone, which was in the hall, began to ring, and instead of opening the wardrobe the marchesa went to answer it. Eugenia, oppressed by those words, hadn’t even heard the old woman’s consoling allusion, and as soon as she was alone she began to look around as far as her poor eyes allowed her. How many fine, beautiful things! Like the store on Via Roma! And there, right in front of her, an open balcony with a lot of small pots of flowers.
She went out onto the balcony. How much air, how much blue! The apartment buildings seemed to be covered by a blue veil, and below was the alley, like a ravine, with so many ants coming and going … like her relatives. What were they doing? Where were they going? They went in and out of their holes, carrying big crumbs of bread, they were doing this now, had done it yesterday, would do it tomorrow, forever, forever. So many holes, so many ants. And around them, almost invisible in the great light, the world made by God, with the wind, the sun, and out there the purifying sea, so vast … She was standing there, her chin planted on the iron railing, suddenly thoughtful, with an expression of sorrow, of bewilderment, that made her look ugly. She heard the sound of the marchesa’s voice, calm, pious. In her hand, in her smooth ivory hand, the marchesa was holding a small book covered in black paper with gilt letters.
“It’s the thoughts of the saints, my dear. The youth of today don’t read anything, and so the world has changed course. Take it, I’m giving it to you. But you must promise to read a little every evening, now that you’ve got your glasses.”
“Yes, signora,” said Eugenia, in a hurry, blushing again because the marchesa had found her on the balcony, and she took the book. Signora D’Avanzo regarded her with satisfaction.
“God wished to save you, my dear!” she said, going to get the package with the dress and placing it in her hands. “You’re not pretty, anything but, and you already appear to be an old lady. God favors you, because looking like that you won’t have opportunities for evil. He wants you to be holy, like your sisters!”
Although the words didn’t really wound her, because she had long been unconsciously prepared for a life without joy, Eugenia was nevertheless disturbed by them. And it seemed to her, if only for a moment, that the sun no longer shone as before, and even the thought of the eyeglasses ceased to cheer her. She looked vaguely, with her nearly dead eyes, at a point on the sea, where the Posillipo peninsula extended like a faded green lizard. “Tell Papa,” the marchesa continued, meanwhile, “that we won’t do anything about the child’s mattress today. My cousin telephoned, and I’ll be in Posillipo all day.”
“I was there once, too …” Eugenia began, reviving at that name and looking, spellbound, in that direction.
“Yes? Is that so?” Signora D’Avanzo was indifferent, the name of that place meant nothing special to her. In her magisterial fashion, she accompanied the child, who was still looking toward that luminous point, to the door, closing it slowly behind her.
As Eugenia came down the last step and out into the courtyard, the shadow that had been darkening her forehead for a while disappeared, and her mouth opened in a joyful laugh, because she had seen her mother arriving. It wasn’t hard to recognize that worn, familiar figure. She threw the dress on a chair and ran toward her.
“Mamma! The eyeglasses!”
“Gently, my dear, you’ll knock me over!”
Immediately, a small crowd formed. Donna Mariuccia, Don Peppino, one of the Greborios, who had stopped to rest on a chair before starting up the stairs, the Amodios’ maid, who was just then returning, and, of course, Pasqualino and Teresella, who wanted to see, too, and yelled, holding out their hands. Nunziata, for her part, was observing the dress that she had taken out of the newspaper, with a disappointed expression.
“Look, Mariuccia, it’s an old rag … all worn out under the arms!” she said, approaching the group. But who was paying attention to her? At that moment, Donna Rosa was extracting from a pocket in her dress the eyeglass case, and with infinite care opened it. On Donna Rosa’s long red hand, a kind of very shiny insect with two giant eyes and two curving antennae glittered in a pale ray of sun amid those poor people, full of admiration.
“Eight thousand lire … a thing like that!” said Donna Rosa, gazing at the eyeglasses religiously, and yet with a kind of rebuke.
Then, in silence, she placed them on Eugenia’s face, as the child ecstatically held out her hands, and carefully arranged the two antennae behind her ears. “Now can you see?” Donna Rosa asked with great emotion.
Gripping the eyeglasses with her hands, as if in fear that they would be taken away from her, her eyes half closed and her mouth half open in a rapt smile, Eugenia took two steps backward, and stumbled on a chair.
“Good luck!” said the Amodios’ maid.
“Good luck!” said the Greborio sister.
“She looks like a schoolteacher, doesn’t she?” Don Peppino observed with satisfaction.
“Not even a thank you!” said Aunt Nunzia, looking bitterly at the dress. “With all that, good luck!”
“She’s afraid, my little girl!” murmured Donna Rosa, heading toward the door of the basement room to put down her things. “She’s put on the eyeglasses for the first time!” she said, looking up at the first-floor balcony, where the other Greborio sister was looking out.
“I see everything very tiny,” said Eugenia, in a strange voice, as if she were speaking from under a chair. “Black, very black.”
“Of course: the lenses are double. But do you see clearly?” asked Don Peppino. “That’s the important thing. She’s put on the glasses for the first time,” he, too, said, addressing Cavaliere Amodio, who was passing by, holding an open newspaper.
“I’m warning you,” the cavaliere said to Mariuccia, after staring at Eugenia for a moment, as if she were merely a cat, “that stairway hasn’t been swept. I found some fish bones in front of the door!” And he went on, bent over, almost enfolded in his newspaper, reading an article about a proposal for a new pension law that interested him.
Eugenia, still holding on to the eyeglasses with her hands, went to the entrance to the courtyard to look outside into Vicolo della Cupa. Her legs were trembling, her head was spinning, and she no longer felt any joy. With her white lips she wished to smile, but that smile became a moronic grimace. Suddenly the balconies began to multiply, two thousand, a hundred thousand; the carts piled with vegetables were falling on her; the voices filling the air, the cries, the lashes, struck her head as if she were ill; she turned, swaying, toward the courtyard, and that terrible impression intensified. The courtyard was like a sticky funnel, with the narrow end toward the sky, its leprous walls crowded with derelict balconies; the arches of the basement dwellings black, with the lights bright in a circle around Our Lady of Sorrows; the pavement white with soapy water; the cabbage leaves, the scraps of paper, the garbage and, in the middle of the courtyard, that group of ragged, deformed souls, faces pocked by poverty and resignation, who looked at her lovingly. They began to writhe, to become mixed up, to grow larger. They all came toward her, in the two bewitched circles of the eyeglasses. It was Mariuccia who first realized that the child was sick, and she tore off the glasses, because Eugenia, doubled over and moaning, was throwing up.
“They’ve gone to her stomach!” cried Mariuccia, holding her forehead. “Bring a coffee bean, Nunziata!”
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” cried Aunt Nunzia, her eyes popping out of her head, running into the basement room to get a coffee bean from a can in the cupboard; and she held up the new eyeglasses, as if to ask God for an explanation. “And now they’re wrong, too!”
“It’s always like that, the first time,” said the Amodios’ maid to Donna Rosa calmly. “You mustn’t be shocked; little by little one gets used to them.”
“It’s nothing, child, nothing, don’t be scared!” But Donna Rosa felt her heart constrict at the thought of how unlucky they were.
Aunt Nunzia returned with the coffee bean, still crying: “A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!” while Eugenia, pale as death, tried in vain to throw up, because she had nothing left inside her. Her bulging eyes were almost crossed with suffering, and her old lady’s face was bathed in tears, as if stupefied. She leaned on her mother and trembled.
“Mamma, where are we?”
“We’re in the courtyard, my child,” said Donna Rosa patiently; and the fine smile, between pity and wonder, that illuminated her eyes, suddenly lit up the faces of all those wretched people.
“She’s a half-wit, she is!”
“Leave her alone, poor child, she’s dazed,” said Donna Mariuccia, and her face was grim with pity, as she went back into the basement apartment that seemed to her darker than usual.
Only Aunt Nunzia was wringing her hands:
“A grand total of a good eight thousand lire!”
*The story is taken from Evening Descends Upon the Hills by Anna Maria Ortese. Pushkin Press, 2018.
Waythorn, on the drawing-room hearth, waited for his wife to come down to dinner.
It was their first night under his own roof, and he was surprised at his thrill of boyish agitation. He was not so old, to be sure—his glass gave him little more than the five-and-thirty years to which his wife confessed—but he had fancied himself already in the temperate zone; yet here he was listening for her step with a tender sense of all it symbolized, with some old trail of verse about the garlanded nuptial door-posts floating through his enjoyment of the pleasant room and the good dinner just beyond it.
They had been hastily recalled from their honeymoon by the illness of Lily Haskett, the child of Mrs. Waythorn’s first marriage. The little girl, at Waythorn’s desire, had been transferred to his house on the day of her mother’s wedding, and the doctor, on their arrival, broke the news that she was ill with typhoid, but declared that all the symptoms were favorable. Lily could show twelve years of unblemished health, and the case promised to be a light one. The nurse spoke as reassuringly, and after a moment of alarm Mrs. Waythorn had adjusted herself to the situation. She was very fond of Lily—her affection for the child had perhaps been her decisive charm in Waythorn’s eyes—but she had the perfectly balanced nerves which her little girl had inherited, and no woman ever wasted less tissue in unproductive worry. Waythorn was therefore quite prepared to see her come in presently, a little late because of a last look at Lily, but as serene and well-appointed as if her good-night kiss had been laid on the brow of health. Her composure was restful to him; it acted as ballast to his somewhat unstable sensibilities. As he pictured her bending over the child’s bed he thought how soothing her presence must be in illness: her very step would prognosticate recovery.
His own life had been a gray one, from temperament rather than circumstance, and he had been drawn to her by the unperturbed gayety which kept her fresh and elastic at an age when most women’s activities are growing either slack or febrile. He knew what was said about her; for, popular as she was, there had always been a faint undercurrent of detraction. When she had appeared in New York, nine or ten years earlier, as the pretty Mrs. Haskett whom Gus Varick had unearthed somewhere—was it in Pittsburgh or Utica?—society, while promptly accepting her, had reserved the right to cast a doubt on its own discrimination. Inquiry, however, established her undoubted connection with a socially reigning family, and explained her recent divorce as the natural result of a runaway match at seventeen; and as nothing was known of Mr. Haskett it was easy to believe the worst of him.
Alice Haskett’s remarriage with Gus Varick was a passport to the set whose recognition she coveted, and for a few years the Varicks were the most popular couple in town. Unfortunately the alliance was brief and stormy, and this time the husband had his champions. Still, even Varick’s stanchest supporters admitted that he was not meant for matrimony, and Mrs. Varick’s grievances were of a nature to bear the inspection of the New York courts. A New York divorce is in itself a diploma of virtue, and in the semi-widowhood of this second separation Mrs. Varick took on an air of sanctity, and was allowed to confide her wrongs to some of the most scrupulous ears in town. But when it was known that she was to marry Waythorn there was a momentary reaction. Her best friends would have preferred to see her remain in the role of the injured wife, which was as becoming to her as crape to a rosy complexion. True, a decent time had elapsed, and it was not even suggested that Waythorn had supplanted his predecessor. Still, people shook their heads over him, and one grudging friend, to whom he affirmed that he took the step with his eyes open, replied oracularly: “Yes—and with your ears shut.”
Waythorn could afford to smile at these innuendoes. In the Wall Street phrase, he had “discounted” them. He knew that society has not yet adapted itself to the consequences of divorce, and that till the adaptation takes place every woman who uses the freedom the law accords her must be her own social justification. Waythorn had an amused confidence in his wife’s ability to justify herself. His expectations were fulfilled, and before the wedding took place Alice Varick’s group had rallied openly to her support. She took it all imperturbably: she had a way of surmounting obstacles without seeming to be aware of them, and Waythorn looked back with wonder at the trivialities over which he had worn his nerves thin. He had the sense of having found refuge in a richer, warmer nature than his own, and his satisfaction, at the moment, was humorously summed up in the thought that his wife, when she had done all she could for Lily, would not be ashamed to come down and enjoy a good dinner.
The anticipation of such enjoyment was not, however, the sentiment expressed by Mrs. Waythorn’s charming face when she presently joined him. Though she had put on her most engaging teagown she had neglected to assume the smile that went with it, and Waythorn thought he had never seen her look so nearly worried.
“What is it?” he asked. “Is anything wrong with Lily?”
“No; I’ve just been in and she’s still sleeping.” Mrs. Waythorn hesitated. “But something tiresome has happened.”
He had taken her two hands, and now perceived that he was crushing a paper between them.
“Yes—Mr. Haskett has written—I mean his lawyer has written.”
Waythorn felt himself flush uncomfortably. He dropped his wife’s hands.
“About seeing Lily. You know the courts—”
“Yes, yes,” he interrupted nervously.
Nothing was known about Haskett in New York. He was vaguely supposed to have remained in the outer darkness from which his wife had been rescued, and Waythorn was one of the few who were aware that he had given up his business in Utica and followed her to New York in order to be near his little girl. In the days of his wooing, Waythorn had often met Lily on the doorstep, rosy and smiling, on her way “to see papa.”
“I am so sorry,” Mrs. Waythorn murmured.
He roused himself. “What does he want?”
“He wants to see her. You know she goes to him once a week.”
“Well—he doesn’t expect her to go to him now, does he?”
“No—he has heard of her illness; but he expects to come here.”
Mrs. Waythorn reddened under his gaze. They looked away from each other.
“I’m afraid he has the right….You’ll see….” She made a proffer of the letter.
Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal. He stood staring about the softly lighted room, which a moment before had seemed so full of bridal intimacy.
“I’m so sorry,” she repeated. “If Lily could have been moved—”
“That’s out of the question,” he returned impatiently.
“I suppose so.”
Her lip was beginning to tremble, and he felt himself a brute.
“He must come, of course,” he said. “When is—his day?”
“Very well. Send a note in the morning.”
The butler entered to announce dinner.
Waythorn turned to his wife. “Come—you must be tired. It’s beastly, but try to forget about it,” he said, drawing her hand through his arm.
“You’re so good, dear. I’ll try,” she whispered back.
Her face cleared at once, and as she looked at him across the flowers, between the rosy candle-shades, he saw her lips waver back into a smile.
“How pretty everything is!” she sighed luxuriously.
He turned to the butler. “The champagne at once, please. Mrs. Waythorn is tired.”
In a moment or two their eyes met above the sparkling glasses. Her own were quite clear and untroubled: he saw that she had obeyed his injunction and forgotten.
Waythorn moved away with a gesture of refusal
Waythorn, the next morning, went down town earlier than usual. Haskett was not likely to come till the afternoon, but the instinct of flight drove him forth. He meant to stay away all day—he had thoughts of dining at his club. As his door closed behind him he reflected that before he opened it again it would have admitted another man who had as much right to enter it as himself, and the thought filled him with a physical repugnance.
He caught the “elevated” at the employees’ hour, and found himself crushed between two layers of pendulous humanity. At Eighth Street the man facing him wriggled out and another took his place. Waythorn glanced up and saw that it was Gus Varick. The men were so close together that it was impossible to ignore the smile of recognition on Varick’s handsome overblown face. And after all—why not? They had always been on good terms, and Varick had been divorced before Waythorn’s attentions to his wife began. The two exchanged a word on the perennial grievance of the congested trains, and when a seat at their side was miraculously left empty the instinct of self-preservation made Waythorn slip into it after Varick.
The latter drew the stout man’s breath of relief.
“Lord—I was beginning to feel like a pressed flower.” He leaned back, looking unconcernedly at Waythorn. “Sorry to hear that Sellers is knocked out again.”
“Sellers?” echoed Waythorn, starting at his partner’s name.
Varick looked surprised. “You didn’t know he was laid up with the gout?”
“No. I’ve been away—I only got back last night.” Waythorn felt himself reddening in anticipation of the other’s smile.
“Ah—yes; to be sure. And Sellers’s attack came on two days ago. I’m afraid he’s pretty bad. Very awkward for me, as it happens, because he was just putting through a rather important thing for me.”
“Ah?” Waythorn wondered vaguely since when Varick had been dealing in “important things.” Hitherto he had dabbled only in the shallow pools of speculation, with which Waythorn’s office did not usually concern itself.
It occurred to him that Varick might be talking at random, to relieve the strain of their propinquity. That strain was becoming momentarily more apparent to Waythorn, and when, at Cortlandt Street, he caught sight of an acquaintance, and had a sudden vision of the picture he and Varick must present to an initiated eye, he jumped up with a muttered excuse.
“I hope you’ll find Sellers better,” said Varick civilly, and he stammered back: “If I can be of any use to you—” and let the departing crowd sweep him to the platform.
At his office he heard that Sellers was in fact ill with the gout, and would probably not be able to leave the house for some weeks.
“I’m sorry it should have happened so, Mr. Waythorn,” the senior clerk said with affable significance. “Mr. Sellers was very much upset at the idea of giving you such a lot of extra work just now.”
“Oh, that’s no matter,” said Waythorn hastily. He secretly welcomed the pressure of additional business, and was glad to think that, when the day’s work was over, he would have to call at his partner’s on the way home.
He was late for luncheon, and turned in at the nearest restaurant instead of going to his club. The place was full, and the waiter hurried him to the back of the room to capture the only vacant table. In the cloud of cigar-smoke Waythorn did not at once distinguish his neighbors; but presently, looking about him, he saw Varick seated a few feet off. This time, luckily, they were too far apart for conversation, and Varick, who faced another way, had probably not even seen him; but there was an irony in their renewed nearness.
Varick was said to be fond of good living, and as Waythorn sat despatching his hurried luncheon he looked across half enviously at the other’s leisurely degustation of his meal. When Waythorn first saw him he had been helping himself with critical deliberation to a bit of Camembert at the ideal point of liquefaction, and now, the cheese removed, he was just pouring his cafe double from its little two-storied earthen pot. He poured slowly, his ruddy profile bent above the task, and one beringed white hand steadying the lid of the coffee-pot; then he stretched his other hand to the decanter of cognac at his elbow, filled a liqueur-glass, took a tentative sip, and poured the brandy into his coffee-cup.
Waythorn watched him in a kind of fascination. What was he thinking of—only of the flavor of the coffee and the liqueur? Had the morning’s meeting left no more trace in his thoughts than on his face? Had his wife so completely passed out of his life that even this odd encounter with her present husband, within a week after her remarriage, was no more than an incident in his day? And as Waythorn mused, another idea struck him: had Haskett ever met Varick as Varick and he had just met? The recollection of Haskett perturbed him, and he rose and left the restaurant, taking a circuitous way out to escape the placid irony of Varick’s nod.
It was after seven when Waythorn reached home. He thought the footman who opened the door looked at him oddly.
“How is Miss Lily?” he asked in haste.
“Doing very well, sir. A gentleman—”
“Tell Barlow to put off dinner for half an hour,” Waythorn cut him off, hurrying upstairs.
He went straight to his room and dressed without seeing his wife. When he reached the drawing-room she was there, fresh and radiant. Lily’s day had been good; the doctor was not coming back that evening.
At dinner Waythorn told her of Sellers’s illness and of the resulting complications. She listened sympathetically, adjuring him not to let himself be overworked, and asking vague feminine questions about the routine of the office. Then she gave him the chronicle of Lily’s day; quoted the nurse and doctor, and told him who had called to inquire. He had never seen her more serene and unruffled. It struck him, with a curious pang, that she was very happy in being with him, so happy that she found a childish pleasure in rehearsing the trivial incidents of her day.
After dinner they went to the library, and the servant put the coffee and liqueurs on a low table before her and left the room. She looked singularly soft and girlish in her rosy pale dress, against the dark leather of one of his bachelor armchairs. A day earlier the contrast would have charmed him.
He turned away now, choosing a cigar with affected deliberation.
“Did Haskett come?” he asked, with his back to her.
“Oh, yes—he came.”
“You didn’t see him, of course?”
She hesitated a moment. “I let the nurse see him.”
That was all. There was nothing more to ask. He swung round toward her, applying a match to his cigar. Well, the thing was over for a week, at any rate. He would try not to think of it. She looked up at him, a trifle rosier than usual, with a smile in her eyes.
“Ready for your coffee, dear?”
He leaned against the mantelpiece, watching her as she lifted the coffee-pot. The lamplight struck a gleam from her bracelets and tipped her soft hair with brightness. How light and slender she was, and how each gesture flowed into the next! She seemed a creature all compact of harmonies. As the thought of Haskett receded, Waythorn felt himself yielding again to the joy of possessorship. They were his, those white hands with their flitting motions, his the light haze of hair, the lips and eyes….
She set down the coffee-pot, and reaching for the decanter of cognac, measured off a liqueur-glass and poured it into his cup.
Waythorn uttered a sudden exclamation.
“What is the matter?” she said, startled.
“Nothing; only—I don’t take cognac in my coffee.”
“Oh, how stupid of me,” she cried.
Their eyes met, and she blushed a sudden agonized red.
Ten days later, Mr. Sellers, still house-bound, asked Waythorn to call on his way down town.
The senior partner, with his swaddled foot propped up by the fire, greeted his associate with an air of embarrassment.
“I’m sorry, my dear fellow; I’ve got to ask you to do an awkward thing for me.”
Waythorn waited, and the other went on, after a pause apparently given to the arrangement of his phrases: “The fact is, when I was knocked out I had just gone into a rather complicated piece of business for—Gus Varick.”
“Well?” said Waythorn, with an attempt to put him at his ease.
“Well—it’s this way: Varick came to me the day before my attack. He had evidently had an inside tip from somebody, and had made about a hundred thousand. He came to me for advice, and I suggested his going in with Vanderlyn.”
“Oh, the deuce!” Waythorn exclaimed. He saw in a flash what had happened. The investment was an alluring one, but required negotiation. He listened intently while Sellers put the case before him, and, the statement ended, he said: “You think I ought to see Varick?”
“I’m afraid I can’t as yet. The doctor is obdurate. And this thing can’t wait. I hate to ask you, but no one else in the office knows the ins and outs of it.”
Waythorn stood silent. He did not care a farthing for the success of Varick’s venture, but the honor of the office was to be considered, and he could hardly refuse to oblige his partner.
“Very well,” he said, “I’ll do it.”
That afternoon, apprised by telephone, Varick called at the office. Waythorn, waiting in his private room, wondered what the others thought of it. The newspapers, at the time of Mrs. Waythorn’s marriage, had acquainted their readers with every detail of her previous matrimonial ventures, and Waythorn could fancy the clerks smiling behind Varick’s back as he was ushered in.
Varick bore himself admirably. He was easy without being undignified, and Waythorn was conscious of cutting a much less impressive figure. Varick had no head for business, and the talk prolonged itself for nearly an hour while Waythorn set forth with scrupulous precision the details of the proposed transaction.
“I’m awfully obliged to you,” Varick said as he rose. “The fact is I’m not used to having much money to look after, and I don’t want to make an ass of myself—” He smiled, and Waythorn could not help noticing that there was something pleasant about his smile. “It feels uncommonly queer to have enough cash to pay one’s bills. I’d have sold my soul for it a few years ago!”
Waythorn winced at the allusion. He had heard it rumored that a lack of funds had been one of the determining causes of the Varick separation, but it did not occur to him that Varick’s words were intentional. It seemed more likely that the desire to keep clear of embarrassing topics had fatally drawn him into one. Waythorn did not wish to be outdone in civility.
“We’ll do the best we can for you,” he said. “I think this is a good thing you’re in.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’s immense. It’s awfully good of you—” Varick broke off, embarrassed. “I suppose the thing’s settled now—but if—”
“If anything happens before Sellers is about, I’ll see you again,” said Waythorn quietly. He was glad, in the end, to appear the more self-possessed of the two.
The course of Lily’s illness ran smooth, and as the days passed Waythorn grew used to the idea of Haskett’s weekly visit. The first time the day came round, he stayed out late, and questioned his wife as to the visit on his return. She replied at once that Haskett had merely seen the nurse downstairs, as the doctor did not wish any one in the child’s sick-room till after the crisis.
The following week Waythorn was again conscious of the recurrence of the day, but had forgotten it by the time he came home to dinner. The crisis of the disease came a few days later, with a rapid decline of fever, and the little girl was pronounced out of danger. In the rejoicing which ensued the thought of Haskett passed out of Waythorn’s mind and one afternoon, letting himself into the house with a latchkey, he went straight to his library without noticing a shabby hat and umbrella in the hall.
In the library he found a small effaced-looking man with a thinnish gray beard sitting on the edge of a chair. The stranger might have been a piano-tuner, or one of those mysteriously efficient persons who are summoned in emergencies to adjust some detail of the domestic machinery. He blinked at Waythorn through a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles and said mildly: “Mr. Waythorn, I presume? I am Lily’s father.”
Waythorn flushed. “Oh—” he stammered uncomfortably. He broke off, disliking to appear rude. Inwardly he was trying to adjust the actual Haskett to the image of him projected by his wife’s reminiscences. Waythorn had been allowed to infer that Alice’s first husband was a brute.
“I am sorry to intrude,” said Haskett, with his over-the-counter politeness.
“Don’t mention it,” returned Waythorn, collecting himself. “I suppose the nurse has been told?”
“I presume so. I can wait,” said Haskett. He had a resigned way of speaking, as though life had worn down his natural powers of resistance.
Waythorn stood on the threshold, nervously pulling off his gloves.
“I’m sorry you’ve been detained. I will send for the nurse,” he said; and as he opened the door he added with an effort: “I’m glad we can give you a good report of Lily.” He winced as the we slipped out, but Haskett seemed not to notice it.
“Thank you, Mr. Waythorn. It’s been an anxious time for me.”
“Ah, well, that’s past. Soon she’ll be able to go to you.” Waythorn nodded and passed out.
In his own room, he flung himself down with a groan. He hated the womanish sensibility which made him suffer so acutely from the grotesque chances of life. He had known when he married that his wife’s former husbands were both living, and that amid the multiplied contacts of modern existence there were a thousand chances to one that he would run against one or the other, yet he found himself as much disturbed by his brief encounter with Haskett as though the law had not obligingly removed all difficulties in the way of their meeting.
Waythorn sprang up and began to pace the room nervously. He had not suffered half so much from his two meetings with Varick. It was Haskett’s presence in his own house that made the situation so intolerable. He stood still, hearing steps in the passage.
“This way, please,” he heard the nurse say. Haskett was being taken upstairs, then: not a corner of the house but was open to him. Waythorn dropped into another chair, staring vaguely ahead of him. On his dressing-table stood a photograph of Alice, taken when he had first known her. She was Alice Varick then—how fine and exquisite he had thought her! Those were Varick’s pearls about her neck. At Waythorn’s instance they had been returned before her marriage. Had Haskett ever given her any trinkets—and what had become of them, Waythorn wondered? He realized suddenly that he knew very little of Haskett’s past or present situation; but from the man’s appearance and manner of speech he could reconstruct with curious precision the surroundings of Alice’s first marriage. And it startled him to think that she had, in the background of her life, a phase of existence so different from anything with which he had connected her. Varick, whatever his faults, was a gentleman, in the conventional, traditional sense of the term: the sense which at that moment seemed, oddly enough, to have most meaning to Waythorn. He and Varick had the same social habits, spoke the same language, understood the same allusions. But this other man…it was grotesquely uppermost in Waythorn’s mind that Haskett had worn a made-up tie attached with an elastic. Why should that ridiculous detail symbolize the whole man? Waythorn was exasperated by his own paltriness, but the fact of the tie expanded, forced itself on him, became as it were the key to Alice’s past. He could see her, as Mrs. Haskett, sitting in a “front parlor” furnished in plush, with a pianola, and a copy of “Ben Hur” on the centre-table. He could see her going to the theatre with Haskett—or perhaps even to a “Church Sociable”—she in a “picture hat” and Haskett in a black frock-coat, a little creased, with the made-up tie on an elastic. On the way home they would stop and look at the illuminated shop-windows, lingering over the photographs of New York actresses. On Sunday afternoons Haskett would take her for a walk, pushing Lily ahead of them in a white enameled perambulator, and Waythorn had a vision of the people they would stop and talk to. He could fancy how pretty Alice must have looked, in a dress adroitly constructed from the hints of a New York fashion-paper; how she must have looked down on the other women, chafing at her life, and secretly feeling that she belonged in a bigger place.
For the moment his foremost thought was one of wonder at the way in which she had shed the phase of existence which her marriage with Haskett implied. It was as if her whole aspect, every gesture, every inflection, every allusion, were a studied negation of that period of her life. If she had denied being married to Haskett she could hardly have stood more convicted of duplicity than in this obliteration of the self which had been his wife.
Waythorn started up, checking himself in the analysis of her motives. What right had he to create a fantastic effigy of her and then pass judgment on it? She had spoken vaguely of her first marriage as unhappy, had hinted, with becoming reticence, that Haskett had wrought havoc among her young illusions….It was a pity for Waythorn’s peace of mind that Haskett’s very inoffensiveness shed a new light on the nature of those illusions. A man would rather think that his wife has been brutalized by her first husband than that the process has been reversed.
“Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure
“Mr. Waythorn, I don’t like that French governess of Lily’s.”
Haskett, subdued and apologetic, stood before Waythorn in the library, revolving his shabby hat in his hand.
Waythorn, surprised in his armchair over the evening paper, stared back perplexedly at his visitor.
“You’ll excuse my asking to see you,” Haskett continued. “But this is my last visit, and I thought if I could have a word with you it would be a better way than writing to Mrs. Waythorn’s lawyer.”
Waythorn rose uneasily. He did not like the French governess either; but that was irrelevant.
“I am not so sure of that,” he returned stiffly; “but since you wish it I will give your message to—my wife.” He always hesitated over the possessive pronoun in addressing Haskett.
The latter sighed. “I don’t know as that will help much. She didn’t like it when I spoke to her.”
Waythorn turned red. “When did you see her?” he asked.
“Not since the first day I came to see Lily—right after she was taken sick. I remarked to her then that I didn’t like the governess.”
Waythorn made no answer. He remembered distinctly that, after that first visit, he had asked his wife if she had seen Haskett. She had lied to him then, but she had respected his wishes since; and the incident cast a curious light on her character. He was sure she would not have seen Haskett that first day if she had divined that Waythorn would object, and the fact that she did not divine it was almost as disagreeable to the latter as the discovery that she had lied to him.
“I don’t like the woman,” Haskett was repeating with mild persistency. “She ain’t straight, Mr. Waythorn—she’ll teach the child to be underhand. I’ve noticed a change in Lily—she’s too anxious to please—and she don’t always tell the truth. She used to be the straightest child, Mr. Waythorn—” He broke off, his voice a little thick. “Not but what I want her to have a stylish education,” he ended.
Waythorn was touched. “I’m sorry, Mr. Haskett; but frankly, I don’t quite see what I can do.”
Haskett hesitated. Then he laid his hat on the table, and advanced to the hearth-rug, on which Waythorn was standing. There was nothing aggressive in his manner; but he had the solemnity of a timid man resolved on a decisive measure.
“There’s just one thing you can do, Mr. Waythorn,” he said. “You can remind Mrs. Waythorn that, by the decree of the courts, I am entitled to have a voice in Lily’s bringing up.” He paused, and went on more deprecatingly: “I’m not the kind to talk about enforcing my rights, Mr. Waythorn. I don’t know as I think a man is entitled to rights he hasn’t known how to hold on to; but this business of the child is different. I’ve never let go there—and I never mean to.”
The scene left Waythorn deeply shaken. Shamefacedly, in indirect ways, he had been finding out about Haskett; and all that he had learned was favorable. The little man, in order to be near his daughter, had sold out his share in a profitable business in Utica, and accepted a modest clerkship in a New York manufacturing house. He boarded in a shabby street and had few acquaintances. His passion for Lily filled his life. Waythorn felt that this exploration of Haskett was like groping about with a dark-lantern in his wife’s past; but he saw now that there were recesses his lantern had not explored. He had never inquired into the exact circumstances of his wife’s first matrimonial rupture. On the surface all had been fair. It was she who had obtained the divorce, and the court had given her the child. But Waythorn knew how many ambiguities such a verdict might cover. The mere fact that Haskett retained a right over his daughter implied an unsuspected compromise. Waythorn was an idealist. He always refused to recognize unpleasant contingencies till he found himself confronted with them, and then he saw them followed by a special train of consequences. His next days were thus haunted, and he determined to try to lay the ghosts by conjuring them up in his wife’s presence.
When he repeated Haskett’s request a flame of anger passed over her face; but she subdued it instantly and spoke with a slight quiver of outraged motherhood.
“It is very ungentlemanly of him,” she said.
The word grated on Waythorn. “That is neither here nor there. It’s a bare question of rights.”
She murmured: “It’s not as if he could ever be a help to Lily—”
Waythorn flushed. This was even less to his taste. “The question is,” he repeated, “what authority has he over her?”
She looked downward, twisting herself a little in her seat. “I am willing to see him—I thought you objected,” she faltered.
In a flash he understood that she knew the extent of Haskett’s claims. Perhaps it was not the first time she had resisted them.
“My objecting has nothing to do with it,” he said coldly; “if Haskett has a right to be consulted you must consult him.”
She burst into tears, and he saw that she expected him to regard her as a victim.
Haskett did not abuse his rights. Waythorn had felt miserably sure that he would not. But the governess was dismissed, and from time to time the little man demanded an interview with Alice. After the first outburst she accepted the situation with her usual adaptability. Haskett had once reminded Waythorn of the piano-tuner, and Mrs. Waythorn, after a month or two, appeared to class him with that domestic familiar. Waythorn could not but respect the father’s tenacity. At first he had tried to cultivate the suspicion that Haskett might be “up to” something, that he had an object in securing a foothold in the house. But in his heart Waythorn was sure of Haskett’s single-mindedness; he even guessed in the latter a mild contempt for such advantages as his relation with the Waythorns might offer. Haskett’s sincerity of purpose made him invulnerable, and his successor had to accept him as a lien on the property.
Mr. Sellers was sent to Europe to recover from his gout, and Varick’s affairs hung on Waythorn’s hands. The negotiations were prolonged and complicated; they necessitated frequent conferences between the two men, and the interests of the firm forbade Waythorn’s suggesting that his client should transfer his business to another office.
Varick appeared well in the transaction. In moments of relaxation his coarse streak appeared, and Waythorn dreaded his geniality; but in the office he was concise and clear-headed, with a flattering deference to Waythorn’s judgment. Their business relations being so affably established, it would have been absurd for the two men to ignore each other in society. The first time they met in a drawing-room, Varick took up their intercourse in the same easy key, and his hostess’s grateful glance obliged Waythorn to respond to it. After that they ran across each other frequently, and one evening at a ball Waythorn, wandering through the remoter rooms, came upon Varick seated beside his wife. She colored a little, and faltered in what she was saying; but Varick nodded to Waythorn without rising, and the latter strolled on.
In the carriage, on the way home, he broke out nervously: “I didn’t know you spoke to Varick.”
Her voice trembled a little. “It’s the first time—he happened to be standing near me; I didn’t know what to do. It’s so awkward, meeting everywhere—and he said you had been very kind about some business.”
“That’s different,” said Waythorn.
She paused a moment. “I’ll do just as you wish,” she returned pliantly. “I thought it would be less awkward to speak to him when we meet.”
Her pliancy was beginning to sicken him. Had she really no will of her own—no theory about her relation to these men? She had accepted Haskett—did she mean to accept Varick? It was “less awkward,” as she had said, and her instinct was to evade difficulties or to circumvent them. With sudden vividness Waythorn saw how the instinct had developed. She was “as easy as an old shoe”—a shoe that too many feet had worn. Her elasticity was the result of tension in too many different directions. Alice Haskett—Alice Varick—Alice Waythorn—she had been each in turn, and had left hanging to each name a little of her privacy, a little of her personality, a little of the inmost self where the unknown god abides.
“Yes—it’s better to speak to Varick,” said Waythorn wearily.
“Earth’s Martyrs.” By Stephen Phillips.
The winter wore on, and society took advantage of the Waythorns’ acceptance of Varick. Harassed hostesses were grateful to them for bridging over a social difficulty, and Mrs. Waythorn was held up as a miracle of good taste. Some experimental spirits could not resist the diversion of throwing Varick and his former wife together, and there were those who thought he found a zest in the propinquity. But Mrs. Waythorn’s conduct remained irreproachable. She neither avoided Varick nor sought him out. Even Waythorn could not but admit that she had discovered the solution of the newest social problem.
He had married her without giving much thought to that problem. He had fancied that a woman can shed her past like a man. But now he saw that Alice was bound to hers both by the circumstances which forced her into continued relation with it, and by the traces it had left on her nature. With grim irony Waythorn compared himself to a member of a syndicate. He held so many shares in his wife’s personality and his predecessors were his partners in the business. If there had been any element of passion in the transaction he would have felt less deteriorated by it. The fact that Alice took her change of husbands like a change of weather reduced the situation to mediocrity. He could have forgiven her for blunders, for excesses; for resisting Hackett, for yielding to Varick; for anything but her acquiescence and her tact. She reminded him of a juggler tossing knives; but the knives were blunt and she knew they would never cut her.
And then, gradually, habit formed a protecting surface for his sensibilities. If he paid for each day’s comfort with the small change of his illusions, he grew daily to value the comfort more and set less store upon the coin. He had drifted into a dulling propinquity with Haskett and Varick and he took refuge in the cheap revenge of satirizing the situation. He even began to reckon up the advantages which accrued from it, to ask himself if it were not better to own a third of a wife who knew how to make a man happy than a whole one who had lacked opportunity to acquire the art. For it was an art, and made up, like all others, of concessions, eliminations and embellishments; of lights judiciously thrown and shadows skillfully softened. His wife knew exactly how to manage the lights, and he knew exactly to what training she owed her skill. He even tried to trace the source of his obligations, to discriminate between the influences which had combined to produce his domestic happiness: he perceived that Haskett’s commonness had made Alice worship good breeding, while Varick’s liberal construction of the marriage bond had taught her to value the conjugal virtues; so that he was directly indebted to his predecessors for the devotion which made his life easy if not inspiring.
From this phase he passed into that of complete acceptance. He ceased to satirize himself because time dulled the irony of the situation and the joke lost its humor with its sting. Even the sight of Haskett’s hat on the hall table had ceased to touch the springs of epigram. The hat was often seen there now, for it had been decided that it was better for Lily’s father to visit her than for the little girl to go to his boarding-house. Waythorn, having acquiesced in this arrangement, had been surprised to find how little difference it made. Haskett was never obtrusive, and the few visitors who met him on the stairs were unaware of his identity. Waythorn did not know how often he saw Alice, but with himself Haskett was seldom in contact.
One afternoon, however, he learned on entering that Lily’s father was waiting to see him. In the library he found Haskett occupying a chair in his usual provisional way. Waythorn always felt grateful to him for not leaning back.
“I hope you’ll excuse me, Mr. Waythorn,” he said rising. “I wanted to see Mrs. Waythorn about Lily, and your man asked me to wait here till she came in.”
“Of course,” said Waythorn, remembering that a sudden leak had that morning given over the drawing-room to the plumbers.
He opened his cigar-case and held it out to his visitor, and Haskett’s acceptance seemed to mark a fresh stage in their intercourse. The spring evening was chilly, and Waythorn invited his guest to draw up his chair to the fire. He meant to find an excuse to leave Haskett in a moment; but he was tired and cold, and after all the little man no longer jarred on him.
The two were inclosed in the intimacy of their blended cigar-smoke when the door opened and Varick walked into the room. Waythorn rose abruptly. It was the first time that Varick had come to the house, and the surprise of seeing him, combined with the singular inopportuneness of his arrival, gave a new edge to Waythorn’s blunted sensibilities. He stared at his visitor without speaking.
Varick seemed too preoccupied to notice his host’s embarrassment.
“My dear fellow,” he exclaimed in his most expansive tone, “I must apologize for tumbling in on you in this way, but I was too late to catch you down town, and so I thought—” He stopped short, catching sight of Haskett, and his sanguine color deepened to a flush which spread vividly under his scant blond hair. But in a moment he recovered himself and nodded slightly. Haskett returned the bow in silence, and Waythorn was still groping for speech when the footman came in carrying a tea-table.
The intrusion offered a welcome vent to Waythorn’s nerves. “What the deuce are you bringing this here for?” he said sharply.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but the plumbers are still in the drawing-room, and Mrs. Waythorn said she would have tea in the library.” The footman’s perfectly respectful tone implied a reflection on Waythorn’s reasonableness.
“Oh, very well,” said the latter resignedly, and the footman proceeded to open the folding tea-table and set out its complicated appointments. While this interminable process continued the three men stood motionless, watching it with a fascinated stare, till Waythorn, to break the silence, said to Varick: “Won’t you have a cigar?”
He held out the case he had just tendered to Haskett, and Varick helped himself with a smile. Waythorn looked about for a match, and finding none, proffered a light from his own cigar. Haskett, in the background, held his ground mildly, examining his cigar-tip now and then, and stepping forward at the right moment to knock its ashes into the fire.
The footman at last withdrew, and Varick immediately began: “If I could just say half a word to you about this business—”
“Certainly,” stammered Waythorn; “in the dining-room—”
But as he placed his hand on the door it opened from without, and his wife appeared on the threshold.
She came in fresh and smiling, in her street dress and hat, shedding a fragrance from the boa which she loosened in advancing.
“Shall we have tea in here, dear?” she began; and then she caught sight of Varick. Her smile deepened, veiling a slight tremor of surprise. “Why, how do you do?” she said with a distinct note of pleasure.
As she shook hands with Varick she saw Haskett standing behind him. Her smile faded for a moment, but she recalled it quickly, with a scarcely perceptible side-glance at Waythorn.
“How do you do, Mr. Haskett?” she said, and shook hands with him a shade less cordially.
The three men stood awkwardly before her, till Varick, always the most self-possessed, dashed into an explanatory phrase.
“We—I had to see Waythorn a moment on business,” he stammered, brick-red from chin to nape.
Haskett stepped forward with his air of mild obstinacy. “I am sorry to intrude; but you appointed five o’clock—” he directed his resigned glance to the time-piece on the mantel.
She swept aside their embarrassment with a charming gesture of hospitality.
“I’m so sorry—I’m always late; but the afternoon was so lovely.” She stood drawing her gloves off, propitiatory and graceful, diffusing about her a sense of ease and familiarity in which the situation lost its grotesqueness. “But before talking business,” she added brightly, “I’m sure every one wants a cup of tea.”
She dropped into her low chair by the tea-table, and the two visitors, as if drawn by her smile, advanced to receive the cups she held out.
She glanced about for Waythorn, and he took the third cup with a laugh.
High up, stretching into the sky, loomed the tower of the fair princess. It was made of pure crystal and its pinnacle was bedecked with gold and precious stones. All around it, a multi-hued, large rose garden spread out. From amongst the thin net of narrow golden paths, perfumed flowerbeds, with countless roses, looked out; red as the setting sun, white as the wings of the Cabbage Whites, pink as the heavens at the brink of dawn, and yellow as the golden curls adorning the fair head of their mistress, the princess. Both beautiful and humble. Each one ten times more glorious and pleasing to the eye than the diamonds, sapphires and aquamarines bejewelling the tower’s crystal. Every single one, a little sun.
And glorious fragrances rose into the sky from the flowerbeds, like wondrous sounds of music, and blended together to become one choir, an ode to beauty. And for all those who saw this glory with their own eyes and listened to the song of fragrances – be they gloomy and their sorrow was forgotten; be they anguished and their torment was unheeded; be they dead and they would come back to life. The garden was surrounded by a tall, thick marble wall that distinguished it from the world around. Roses coiled against the wall, but not one of them dared ascend to the edge and raise her head beyond the kingdom of flowers. And the gate to the garden was locked shut, and hard metal bolts were always suspended across it.
Every morning, bright and early, as the sun rose, the first beams cast their light on the top of the tower, making the crystal glimmer and glisten and glow in a multitude of colours, and as the soft breeze moved the silver bells hanging in the window of the princess’ bedroom, she would walk down to her garden. Her little feet would stroke the ground as she walked, and the rim of her white, light, fragrant dress caressed her pink heels. She would reach the well, draw water from it, and, with her own two narrow hands, as delicate as the wings of white doves, she would water her flowers, one row after the other, flying from one flowerbed to the next, pouring fresh water over the buds, and they would bow to her in gratitude. When she was done, she would walk amongst the flowers to see that nothing had happened to them during the night. And if a rose was bent, she would straighten it; if it had been uprooted, she would plant it once more; if it had wilted, she would snip it off the bush and cast it far from her. And after combing the flowerbeds for thistles, brambles and weeds, she would scatter golden sand along the paths. This was how her day passed.
And when the sun started setting and pink mist began drifting through the air, the wondrous one would again walk the length and width of her garden and kneel next to each rose; and with her lips, which were as sweet as the taste of cherry nectar, she would kiss every flower. And after her kiss, the flowers were ten times as splendid and as beautiful, and their fragrance twenty times as powerful and intoxicating. The princess, dazed by the scent of her own flowers, would go up to her room in the tower and surrender herself to a blue night, full of dreams.
And beyond the wall was a large city, crowded and squalid. Long, narrow and grimy streets twisted through it like snakes. Tall grey houses with small dirty windows and rusted roofs stood crammed together, making it seem as if each one wanted to push the other and take its place. And thousands of factory chimneys raised their heads upwards, piping the black smoke into the sky. Outside of town, there were green pools of water that reeked, desolate fields whose crops grew low and meagre, and old, pitiful ramshackle houses. And only the wonderful scent of the roses, which emanated from the princess’ garden and lingered in the air, would shed a bit of comfort on this rancid city.
Every morning, when the clouded sky turned a little brighter, and all the factories’ chimneys roared their awful roar in one wild chorus, the inhabitants of the city would leave their houses. Their hair was unkempt, their eyes reddened with tears and sleeplessness. Their lips were pale and withered, their clothes made of a rough fabric, torn and grey like the dust of the roads. Even the heads of the children bowed down, and no one dared raise their voice in laughter. Group after group they would walk to the workshops and factories to toil away. And then each one would stiffen in his task. One hunched his back over a needle throughout the long grey day, another incessantly turned the wheel of a machine, the next dug a hole in a ground as hard as stone, another kept throwing wood into the mouth of a burning furnace, large drops of sweat rolling down his sooty body. And in the evening, when the yellow street lamps were lit and their murky light washed over the whole city, the people, dead tired, left their work and went outside, hurrying to their homes to quickly satiate themselves on a dry slice of bread, fall asleep and forget everything, everything.
And on their way home, they were accompanied by the factories’ second roar.
And three times a year only, on the days of the great holidays, the city would transform itself. The narrow streets were cleaner then, a strange smile appeared on the houses and in the little windows white curtains gleamed. On such days, the factories’ chimneys would remain silent and people would stay home until late. And then they would come out, fresh and with a smile on their lips, washed and wearing festive speckled clothes. They all hurried to the field outside the princess’ garden, and there they would stand and wait in anticipation.
At twelve noon, the princess, in all the glory of her beauty, would appear on the wall, her white attire coming down in folds on the wall’s marble, and within her soft face, between her eyelids, two blue eyes glistened, like pools of water among the reeds. On her arm hung a large basket and in it wonderful roses from her garden. For a while she would look down at the speckled field, where thousands of bright, eye-fetching colours burnt in the light of the sun, and then, with her long fingers, she would take the flowers out of her basket and throw them one-by-one to the expectant crowd below. And they would grab each flower and tear it into tiny pieces; and whoever came across even one petal would be elated.
And after the princess had shared her gifts, she would step down off the wall and into the garden, and there she would listen to the songs of joy sung by the dispersing crowed. The notes were powerful and full of hope. They rang through the clear air like the laughter of thunder in a spring sky and grew silent only as evening descended.
The next day the princess would resume her work in the rose garden. And, on the other side of the wall, the hard day-to-day life would also recommence.
Once there was a drought. The barren soil outside the city yielded only very little, and the low, meagre crops were singed as they budded. The wells and pools dried up, the tiles that paved the city streets burnt like coals, and the dust rose high up, enshrouding everything. The people despaired from hunger and thirst. They hunched their backs even lower. Their faces were pale and bleak, their eyes were on fire and their fists became clenched. And when the holiday arrived, none of the city’s inhabitants wore their speckled clothing. Sooty and dirty, wearing torn clothes, they gathered on the field outside the princess’ house and waited impatiently for her arrival. She was a little late that morning: “How beautiful the flowers are this year! And the basket so full. How happy they will be when I bring the roses to them,” she thought. But the strange voices that she heard from beyond the wall startled her. “What is it?” she wondered, “For I have never heard sounds such as these before, and why haven’t I?” She finally made her mind up and started climbing, and as she climbed strange wailing reached her ears – the sound of children crying, and women groaning, and roars which came from the parched throats of the men, and when she lowered her gaze to look down at the field, she was so startled she could barely hold herself, for it was so black and ugly. But still she placed her hand in the flower basket, meaning to throw the flowers to the crowd, but a wild laughter that rose from everyone’s throats stopped her.
“Enough!” they shouted from below. “We have no need for your gifts! We shall not let you go on dwelling safely beyond the wall, enjoying the scent of your flowers. See our poverty! How thin our arms, how white our hair. Look how ugly we are, how filthy our city. We no longer want a dog’s life. We need wonderful flowers in our gardens, not behind your wall! Come out to us! Walk among us. Be the gardener of our gardens. Open the gates! And if not… Well, we will tear down the wall, shatter your towers, and trample over those roses of yours with the soles of our boots. Open the gates!”
And the princess lowered her hand helplessly, twisted her dresses with anguish, and large shimmering tears rolled down from her eyes. Then she climbed down the wall and opened the gate.
The inflamed mass barged into the garden trampling and collecting the roses, destroying the crystal tower, and they took the princess away with them.
And from that day on she began planting the roses in their gardens, in their barren soil, but the buds that grew were pale and lifeless, their scent was so faint that no one sensed it, and the magical qualities of the roses in the garden beyond the wall were gone. The princess persisted in her efforts to retrieve their former glory, but to no avail. Even the kisses from her warm lips could not revive the roses.
Then the city’s inhabitants said: “Why did you deceive us? We have plenty of roses like these, we never asked you for trickery. We begged you for remedy and comfort. Grow the roses you once grew in your garden on our lands!”
And she replied: “I cannot. For the roses I once grew bloom only beyond the wall.”
And they would not believe her.
A woman is workspace when will someone love you? Have you ever stayed seated in your chair until lunchtime, you drink lots of water- your body took the shape of a chair. A woman in workspace, the space changes, the work changes, companies rise and fall. You can close the door behind you but you will still hear the three-dimensional printer working, it assists in the manufacturing of single models, it saves time, and the cost is low. I remember, I once had a job interview, they designed and built three dimensional-printers like this one there, I didn’t remember they made so much noise. The interviewer looked at my resume and, after asking me a few professional questions, said to me, so, have you ever shot a gun? I told him that I had but only at cardboard targets. A woman in workspace, have you ever loved?
You no longer hear the sound of the three-dimensional printer, it’s the kind of sound you get used to after a few months, the walls are all made of plaster. You can hear everything. You can hear the others sigh. You hear the gate beeping, the entrance gate for suppliers, customers, clients, workers. Some lose their patience and honk their horns, complementing the rhythmic beeping of the gate, at some point one of us opens it. A woman in workspace, sometimes I think I should begin the story here: a woman in workspace with the shape of a chair. A woman in workspace, have you ever loved? The space changes, the people change, the workload is heavier or ends. Sometimes they refurbish the office. They bring potted plants. Launch new software to control the inventory, the processes, to control the files, to control everything really – A woman in workspace, can you hear me?
The CEO jumped on the table and hollered at us. He said: You are not working hard enough. The CEO jumped on the receptionist’s desk and stabilized his. Long white (the desk). He said: We are losing time and you are not meeting the group’s goals. Said: You must retain your focus. He emphasized: Our success is dependent on you and on you solely. Also: You must increase your speed. Then he said: The time is crucial, and I won’t let us enter stoppage time. We stood and looked at him silently. Then he added, over my dead body. Some of us exchanged looks with some of the others. He stood very stable on the desk, with his legs straddled. He talked for half an hour, maybe more. The majority of the things he said was addressed to us, the technology department team. He repeatedly warned us of last minute smugness. His eyes were shining. Then he said, we are one step away from realizing the dream, there is no time to rest. You’ll sleep when you’re dead. He repeated the same sentences over and over again. And all the time he stood on the receptionist’s desk, his legs firm, his hands moving at the speed of his speech, which grew faster and faster. We scattered as soon as he was done. I went back to my cubicle. I passed my manager’s cubicle on the way. He was busy on a conference call. He spoke loudly into a microphone and his ears were covered by large headphones.
We must push up the delivery time, he yelled, his face glued to his computer screen. We must push up the delivery time. I continued to walk toward my cubicle. The open space was very noisy, keyboards and conversations. The coffee corner was empty. When I got to my place and sat in front of the computer, my inbox filled with a lot of new emails. I remembered that I should never start with the emails. I once read a newspaper article about it. Ten Rules to Increase Productivity at Work. Rule number one, never start your day with answering emails. I opened the notebook and flipped through the pages until I got to the last page I wrote in, the one with the to do list. I started to prepare for the meeting. I opened the relevant computer files. One of the neighbors in a nearby cubicle relentlessly pressed his keyboard keys. He was hitting it hard. I was still able to focus. I hit the keys quickly myself. Mine too. The fingers were hitting hard. At the background his fingers were hitting his harder and harder, almost breathlessly. Mine too.
A woman in a workspace Are you breathing? All those lists are going to eventually nail you to the office floor (blue linoleum flooring from the eighties, like the one you had at elementary school, in the gym, I remember how much I liked to high jump, breaking a new record every week.) At least this office has outside windows, the air comes out of the AC but the light is natural. A woman in workspace who since winter began can’t get up in the mornings. A woman in workspace. Do you bleed? I think you’re bleeding and that it’s out of your ordinary dates. Everything always comes on time with you, even though with the years things turn stickier, filled with more life, you don’t excrete it out of your womb, for a while now it’s been coming out of your irises, and every time you look at something it drips off you, you’re shedding salty tears of blood in front of the double screens of the work station. A woman in workspace do you remember how once, not so long ago, you liked meetings and long processes, and to see how they are validated, the things, and your projects, become alive –
A woman in a workspace I tried to take the woman out of the workspace and talk to her when I am in a space that isn’t work.
She didn’t answer.
Around midnight my head hit the pillow and I remembered the fish. I couldn’t remember whether I fed it or not. I got out of bed and took it out of the aquarium. I immediately put it inside a deep plastic box. I went to wash the aquarium, which was very dirty. The fish might have been sick. When I washed the aquarium the bowl slipped through my fingers and broke inside the sink. I left it like that in the sink. I added some food to the plastic box, the fish’s new abode, and it swam. It seemed content, that was always the kind of impression it made. I manage it like I manage all other things. I made a habit to feed it Mondays and Thursdays. The problem is, sometimes it gets difficult to remember when is Monday and when is Thursday. When is the time of the fish. I always confuse dates and schedules. Like with my period. It has always been very regular and I knew how to identify it when it came. Atomic nervous breakdowns, no pain. At some point I downloaded some sort of an application which tells me when it’s due. I write in it what kind of symptoms appear before, during, and after my period. And when I have sex, if I had it, and with whom. The company gave me my cellphone. It also covers my monthly phone bills. Sometimes they switch my phone for me. Not only me, for everyone. The reason is almost always an upgrade. Some other times, when the phone is stolen or broken, they also agree to get another. With some employer’s participation, of course, which is deducted from my wage. A lot of numbers were lost or deleted because of the upgradings. Or the opposite, were doubled or tripled. Mostly I don’t notice it in real time. The main problem remains the dates. The period application synchronizes the last update but sometimes it’s not close enough. In these cases I lose track of it completely.
A woman in a workspace do you get bored? What are you thinking now. I noticed you have 37 unread emails in your inbox. There are also tasks on the whiteboard, it’s your handwriting, and you tried to write clearly. Someone enters your room I think, he’s talking to you now, have you noticed? He puts his hand on your table, reclines, now he’s getting close to your computer screen, he looks at the screen, you talk about a file, now he asks something from you, he asks about something which is under your sole responsibility, he’s asking a very simple question, your lips should have already delivered the answer, it’s time to speak now because he has stopped talking, a woman in workspace, now he’s been quiet for at least five seconds, I know, because it’s approximately the time it takes to say: A woman in workspace –
*An excerpt from Company by Tehila Hakimi, Resling publishing house, Israel, 2018.
When Glory’s parents christened her Glorybetogod Ngozi Akunyili, they did not foresee Facebook’s “real name” policy, nor the weeks she would spend populating forms and submitting copies of her bills and driver’s license and the certificate that documented her birth on September 9, 1986, a rainy Tuesday, at 6:45 p.m., after six hours of labor and six years of barrenness. Pinning on her every hope they had yet to realize, her parents imagined the type of life well-situated Igbos imagined for their children. She would be a smart girl with the best schooling. She would attend church regularly and never stray from the Word. (Amen!) She would learn to cook like her grandmother, her father added, to which her mother countered, why not like her mother, and Glorybetogod’s father hemmed and hawed till his wife said maybe he should go and eat at his mother’s house. But back to Glorybetogod, whom everyone called Glory except for her grandfather, who called her “that girl” the first time he saw her.
“That girl has something rotten in her, her chi is not well.”
Husband pulled wife out of the room to prevent a brawl (“I don’t care how old that drunk is, I will fix his mouth today”) and begged his father to accept his firstborn grandchild. He didn’t see, as the grandfather did, the caul of misfortune covering Glory’s face that would affect every decision she made, causing her to err on the side of wrong, time and time again. When Glory was five she decided, after much consideration, to stick her finger into the maw of a sleeping dog. At seven, shortly after her family relocated to the US, Glory thought it a good idea to walk home when her mother was five minutes late picking her up from school, a choice that saw her lost and sobbing in a Piggly Wiggly parking lot before night fell. She did a lot of things out of spite, the source of which she couldn’t identify—as if she’d been born resenting the world.
That’s how, much to her parents’ embarrassment, their Glory came to be nearing thirty, chronically single, and working at a call center in downtown Minneapolis. She fielded calls from disgruntled home- owners on the brink of foreclosure, reading from a script that was intricate and logical and written by people who had never before spoken on the phone to a human being. In all their calculations about her future, Glory’s parents had never imagined that on April 16, 2013, after receiving yet another e-mail denying her request to restore her Facebook page (the rep refused to believe any parent would actually name their child Glorybetogod), their daughter would be the sort of person for whom this flake of misfortune set rolling an avalanche of misery that quickly led to her contemplating taking her own life.
She called her mother, hoping to be talked out of it, but got her voice mail and then a text saying, What is it now? (Glory knew better than to respond.) A call to her father would yield an even cooler response, and so she spent the evening on the edge of her bed, neck tense as a fist, contemplating how a bottle of Moscato would pair with thirty gelcap sleeping pills. The note she wrote read, I was born under an unlucky star and my destiny has caught up with me. I’m sorry, Mummy and Daddy, that I didn’t complete law school and become the person you’d hoped. But it was also your fault for putting so much pressure on me. Good-bye.
All of this was true, and not. Her parents did put pressure on her, but it was the sort of hopeful pressure that might have encouraged a better person. And she was unlucky, yes, but it was less fate and more her propensity for arguing with professors and storming out of classrooms never to return that saw her almost flunk out of college. She eventually graduated, with an embarrassing GPA. Then came law school, to which she gained entrance through a favor of a friend of a friend of her father’s, thinking that her argumentative tendencies could be put to good use. But she’d managed to screw that up, too, choosing naps instead of class and happy hours instead of studying, unable to do right no matter how small the choice. These foolish little choices incremented into probation, then a polite request to leave, followed by an impolite request to leave after she’d staged a protest in the dean’s office.
Glory fell asleep after a glass and a half of wine and woke to find the pills a melted mass in her fist. In the morning light, her melodramatic note embarrassed her and she tore it up and flushed it down the toilet. At work, avoiding the glare of her supervisor and the finger he pointed at the clock, she switched on her headphones to receive the first call: Mrs. Dumfries. Her husband had died and she had no clue where any paperwork was. Could Glory help her keep her house? Glory read from her script, avoiding the no they were never allowed to utter. Then Glen, who was actually Greg, who was also Peter, who called every day at least four or five times and tried to trick the customer service reps into promises they couldn’t keep. Little did he know that even if Glory promised him his childhood home complete with all the antiques that had gone missing after the foreclosure, she would only be fired and he would still be stuck in the same two-bedroom apartment with his kids. All day the calls came in and Glory had to say no without saying no and the linguistic acrobatics required to evade this simple answer wore away her nerves.
At lunch, she ate one of the burritos that came three-for-a-dollar at the discount grocery store and a nice-looking sandwich that belonged to one of her coworkers, and checked her e-mail again. Then she walked by the lobby of the advertising agency that dominated the top two floors of the building. To the right of the glass lobby doors were mounted the logos of the companies the firm had branded. She paused and took a photo of herself in front of the logo of the jewelry megachain. If her Facebook page was ever restored, she would post the picture, with the caption “Worked on my favorite account today. The best part is the free samples!”
Then her cousin in Port Harcourt would like her post, and another friend would confess her envy, and others still would say how (OMG!) she was sooo lucky. And for a moment she would live the sort of life her parents had imagined for her those many, many years ago.
After her lunch break, she sank back into her seat and was about to switch her headset on when he walked in. Glory knew he was Nigerian right away by his gait. And when he spoke, a friendly greeting as he shook her supervisor’s hand, her guess was confirmed. He wore a suit, slightly ill fitting, but his shoulders made up for it. He joined a group of trainees across the room.
He had an air of competence she found irritating, reading from the script as though he had it memorized, managing to make it sound compassionate and genuine. At one point he noticed her staring, and every time she looked at him after that he was looking at her, too.
She culled bits and pieces of him over the rest of the day, eavesdropped from impressed supervisors who sang his praises. He was getting an MBA at the U. He’d grown up in Nigeria but visited his uncle in Atlanta every summer. After his MBA he was going to attend law school. His parents were both doctors.
Glory knew what he was doing, because she did the same: sharing too many details of her life with these strangers, signaling why she didn’t belong here earning $13.50 an hour. She was better than “customer service representative”—everyone should know that this title was only temporary. Except in his case, it was all true.
He smiled at her when she was leaving, a smile so sure of reciprocation that Glory wanted to flip him off. But the home training that lingered caused her to avert her eyes instead and hurry to catch the bus.
Her phone dinged. A text from her mother. Why did you call me, do you need money again? No, she wanted to respond, I’m doing fine, but she didn’t. After a week, her mother might send $500 and say this was the last time and she’d better not tell her father. Glory would use the money to complete her rent or buy new shoes or maybe squirrel it away to be nibbled bit by bit— candy here, takeout there—till it disappeared. Then, when her mother couldn’t restrain herself anymore, Glory would receive a stern, long-winded lecture via e-mail, about how she wouldn’t have to worry about such things if she were married, and why didn’t she let her father introduce her to some of the young men at his work? And Glory would delete it, and cry, and retrace all the missteps that had led her to this particular place. She knew her birth story and what her grandfather had said, but it never made a difference when the time came to make the right choice. She was always drawn to the wrong one, like a dog curious to taste its own vomit.
The next day, Glory arrived at work to see the man sitting in the empty spot next to hers.
“Good morning.” “Hi.”
“My name is Thomas. They told me you are also from Nigeria? You don’t sound it.”
“I’ve been here since I was six, I hope you don’t think I should have kept my accent that long.”
He flinched at her rudeness but pressed on.
“I don’t know many Nigerians here, maybe you can introduce me?”
Glory considered the handful of women she kept in touch with who would have loved to be introduced to this guy, still green and fresh. But they saw little of her real life, thinking Glory to be an ad exec with a fabulous lifestyle, and any introductions would jeopardize that.
“Sorry, I don’t really know anyone either. You should try talking to someone with real friends.”
He laughed, thinking she was joking, and his misunderstanding loosened her tongue. It was nice to talk to someone new who had no expectations of her.
“So, why are you slumming it here with the rest of us? Shouldn’t you be interning somewhere fabulous?” “This is my internship. I actually work in corporate but thought I should get a better understanding of what happens in the trenches.”
“Wait, you’re here voluntarily? Are you crazy?”
He laughed again. “No, it’s just . . . you wouldn’t understand.”
“I’m not stupid,” Glory said. “So fuck you.” Then she switched on her headset, ignoring his “Whoa, where did that come from?,” and turned her dial to the busiest queue. The calls came in one after then other, leaving Thomas little chance to apologize if he wanted to.
An hour in, he pressed a note into Glory’s palm.
I’m sorry, it read. Can I treat you to lunch?
Her pride said no, but her stomach, last filled with the sandwich she’d stolen yesterday afternoon, begged a yes.
She snatched up his pen. I guess.
Mom, I’m seeing someone. Glory typed and deleted that sentence over and over, never sending it. Her mother would call for sure, and then she’d dissect every description of Thomas till he was flayed to her satisfaction. Her father would ask to hear the “young man’s intentions.” The cloying quality of their attention would ruin it.
Thomas would have delighted them. He went to church every Sunday—though he’d learned to stop inviting her—and he had the bright sort of future that was every parent’s dream. He prayed over his meals, and before he went to bed, and when he woke up. He prayed for her. Glory despised him. She hated the sheen of accomplishment he wore, so dulled on her. She hated his frugal management of money. She hated that when she’d pressed him for sex he’d demurred, saying that they should wait till they were more serious.
Glory couldn’t get enough of him. She loved that he watched Cartoon Network with the glee of a teenager, loved that he could move through a crowd of strangers and emerge on the other side with friends. He didn’t seem to mind her coarseness, or how her bad luck had deepened her bitterness so that she wished even the best of people ill. He didn’t seem to mind how joy had become a finite meal she begrudged seeing anyone but herself consume. She wanted to ask him what he saw in her but was afraid his answer would be qualities she knew to be illusions. A carefree attitude that was simply carelessness. Bluntness mistaken for honesty when she was just mean.
They talked of Nigeria often, or at least he did, telling her about growing up in Onitsha and how he wanted to move back someday. He said we and us like it was understood she’d go back with him, and she began to savor a future she’d never imagined for herself.
She’d been to Nigeria many times, in fact, but she kept that from him, enjoying, then loathing, then enjoying how excited he was to explain the country to her. He didn’t know that what little money she could scrape together was spent on a plane ticket to Nigeria every thirteen months, or that over the past few years, she had arrived the day after her grandmother’s death, then the day after her great-aunt’s death, and then her uncle’s, so that her grandfather asked her to let him know when she booked her ticket so that he could prepare to die. Thomas still didn’t know she was unlucky.
She kept it secret to dissuade any probing, unaware that people like Thomas were never suspicious, as trusting of the world’s goodness as children born to wealth. When she visited her grandfather, they’d sit together in his room watching TV, Glory getting up only to fetch them food or drink. Nobody knew why she made the trips as often as she did, or why she eschewed the bustle of Lagos for her grandfather’s sleepy village. She couldn’t explain that her grandfather knew her, saw her for what she was—a black hole that compressed and eliminated fortune and joy—and still opened his home to her, gave her a room and a bed, the mattress so old the underside bore stains from when her mother’s water broke.
Near the end of her last stay, their conversation had migrated to her fate.
“There is only disaster in your future if you do not please the gods,” he’d said.
The older she got, the more she felt the truth of it: the deep inhale her life had been so far, in preparation for an explosive exhale that would flatten her.
“Papa, you know I don’t have it in me to win anyone’s favor, let alone the gods’.”
They were both dressed in shorts and singlets, the voltage of the generator too low to carry anything that cooled. Glory sat on the floor, shifting every half hour to savor the chill of cooler tiles. Her grandfather lounged on the bed. When he began one of his fables, she closed her eyes.
“A porcupine and a tortoise came to a crossroads, where a spirit appeared before them. ‘Carry me to the heart of the river and let me drink,’ the spirit said. Neither wanted to be saddled with the spirit, but they could not deny it without good reason.
“‘I am slow,’ said the tortoise, ‘it will take us many years to reach the river.’
“‘I am prickly,’ said the porcupine, ‘the journey will be too painful.’
“The spirit raged. ‘If you don’t get me to the heart of the river by nightfall and give me a cup to drink, I will extinguish every creature of your kind.’
“The tortoise and the porcupine conferred. ‘What if you carry me,’ said the tortoise, ‘while I carry the spirit? We will surely make it by nightfall.’
“‘I have a better idea,’ said the porcupine. ‘These are no ordinary quills on my back. They are magic quills capable of granting any wish. The only condition is that you must close your eyes and open them only after your wish is granted.’
“The tortoise and the spirit each plucked a quill, eager for desires out of reach, and closed their eyes. That’s when the porcupine snatched the quill from the tortoise and jammed it into the flesh of his throat. He filled the spirit’s hands with the tortoise’s blood, which it drank, thinking the gurgling it heard to be from the river. But spirits know the taste of blood. It lashed out at the porcupine, only to find that it could move no faster than a tortoise. The porcupine continued on his way.”
Her grandfather’s long pause signaled the end. “Are you hearing me?”
“Yes, but what does it mean?”
“If you can’t please the gods, trick them.”
Glory’s time with her grandfather had eased pressure building in her, but the relief had been short-lived. A stream of catastrophes greeted her stateside: Keys left on the plane. A car accident, her foot slipping on the pedal made smooth by the car insurance check she’d forgotten to mail. A job lost for lack of transportation, which after many fruitless applications had landed her in the petri dish of the call center where she’d met Thomas.
Thomas, on the other hand, was a lucky man. He always seemed to find money lying about the street, although never so large an amount as to induce alarm or guilt. He always got what he wanted, always, and attributed it to ingenuity and perseverance, unaware of the halo of good fortune resting on his head. When Glory had him write a new request to Facebook, her page was restored in a day. He would have been appalled to know she sometimes followed him when they parted ways after work, watching with fascination as he drew amity from everyone he encountered.
Some of his luck did rub off on her and she found herself receiving invitations to long-standing events she hadn’t even known existed. Igbo Women’s Fellowship of the Midwest. Daughters of Biafra, Minnesota chapter. Party, Party, a monthly event rotated among different homes. Sometimes, as she watched Thomas charm a crowd with little effort, she wondered how it was that one person could be so blessed and another not. They’d been born in the same state to parents of similar means and faith. Even accounting for the privileges of his maleness, it seemed to Glory that they should have been in the same place. She began to think of his luck as something that had been taken from her and viewed their relationship as a way to even her odds.
At last they were serious enough for Thomas, and the sex was not mediocre exactly, but just good, not the mind-blowing experience she’d expected it to be. But Thomas was moved and thanked her for trusting him, and she said, “You’re welcome,” in that cutesy, girlish way she knew he would like, even though what she really wanted was for him to stop being such a gentleman and fuck her silly.
And the more he said us and we, the less quickly she deleted that Mom, I’m seeing someone text. One day, instead of sending it, she posted a picture of her and Thomas on her Facebook wall, setting off a sequence that involved her Port Harcourt cousin calling another cousin who called another and so on and so forth, until the news reached her mother, who called her. It took thirty-seven minutes.
Glory waited till just before the call went to voice mail to pick up.
“Who is he? Praise God! What is his name?” “Thomas Okongwu,” and at Okongwu her mother started praising God again. Glory couldn’t help but laugh and felt a blush of gratitude. It had been years since any news she’d delivered over the phone had given her mother cause for joy. She told her about Thomas and his ambitions, getting more animated the more excited her mother became. She ignored the undercurrent of disbelief on the other end of the line, as if her mother couldn’t quite believe her daughter had gotten something right.
After that, it was like everything she did was right. Her job, long pilloried, was now a good thing. The fact that she had no career, her father wrote, meant that she could fully concentrate on her children when they came along. Her ineptitude at managing money no longer mattered. You see, he continued, she’d picked the perfect man to make up for her weaknesses. Kind where she was not, frugal where she was not. Successful.
Glory stared at her father’s e-mail, meant to comfort but instead bringing to mind the wine and pills and what they could do to a body. She moved the message to a folder she’d long ago titled “EVIDENCE”— documents gathered to make her case if she chose never to speak to her father again.
When Thomas asked her if she’d like to meet his mother, Glory knew the right answer and gave it. But she panicked at the prospect of having to impress this woman. Her parents had been easy. Thomas was impressive. She was not.
“Why do you want me to meet her?” she asked. She knew the question was a bit coy, but she wanted some reassurance to hold on to.
Thomas shrugged. “She asked to meet you.”
“So you didn’t ask her if she wanted to meet me?”
After a patient rolling of eyes, Thomas gripped her shoulders and shook her with gentle exasperation.
“You’re always doing this. Of course I want you to meet her and of course she wants to meet you. You’re all she ever talks about now. Look.” He dialed his cell phone. Glory heard a woman laugh on the other end of the line and say something that made Thomas laugh too. Then he said, “Hey, Mum, she’s right here. I’ll let you talk, but don’t go scaring her off.” The warm phone was pressed to her ear, and a voice just shy of being too deep for a woman’s greeted her.
Glory tried to say all the right things about herself and her family, which meant not saying much about herself at all. She wanted this woman to like her, and even beyond that, to admire her, something she wasn’t sure she could achieve without lies. On Facebook, she’d pretended to quit her job at the ad firm—a “sad day indeed,” an old college friend had written on her wall, making Glory suspect he knew the truth. (She unfriended him right away.) But Thomas’s mother could not be so easily dismissed. Glory trotted out her parents’ accomplishments—engineer mother, medical-supply-business-owner father—to shore up her pedigree. Then she mentioned more recent social interests of hers, like the Igbo women’s group, leaving out Thomas’s hand in that. All the while her inner voice wondered what the hell she was doing. Tricking the gods, she replied.
The day Thomas’s mother flew in, Glory cooked for hours at his apartment. She’d solicited recipes from her mother, who took much joy in walking her through every step over the phone. By the time Thomas left for the airport, his apartment was as fragrant as a buka, with as large a variety of dishes awaiting eager bellies.
His mother was tall and Glory felt like a child next to her. His mother was also warm, and she folded Glory into a perfumed, bosomy hug.
“Welcome, ma,” Glory said, then wanted to kick herself for sounding so deferential.
“My dear, no need to be so formal, I feel like I’ve known you for years, the way my son goes on and on. It’s me who should be welcoming you into the family.”
She complimented each dish, tasting a bit of one after the other and nodding before filling her plate. It was a test, and Glory was gratified to see that she had passed.
Thomas squeezed her leg under the table, a reassuring pressure that said, See? Nothing to worry about. But what did a person like him know about worry? When his mother questioned her about her work, it was clear she assumed Glory worked in corporate with Thomas, and neither of them dissuaded her. Yet it rankled Glory, who couldn’t decide whether Thomas had stretched the truth into a more presentable form or hadn’t realized what his mother would assume.
Thomas used the pause that followed to excuse himself on an errand. Glory, knowing there was no such errand, gripped his hand tight, pleading. Thomas pried his hand away while his mother busied herself adjusting her coffee to her liking.
He leaned over and whispered, “Just be you. She likes you already, relax.”
Thomas pecked Glory on her nervous, trembling mouth and kissed his mother on the cheek. As soon as the door closed behind him, the older woman spoke.
“Well, it’s just us girls now, what should we chat about?” She smiled an invitation at Glory, who took a long sip of water to mask her anxiety. When she didn’t say anything, Thomas’s mother took the lead.
“So you two are supervising a group of three hundred? You should have no problem with a family then. Thomas says they are like a bunch of unruly children.” She laughed.
Glory knew she should laugh, too, make light of the notes posted around the call center asking people not to steal food. But her contrary nature stirred.
“Actually, I am one of those unruly children. I work the floor.”
“Oh.” Then seamlessly, “Well, it’s no matter at this point, is it. I’m so happy that you will soon leave the US to come and stay with me in Nigeria. It’s so important to bring up the children there. Thomas’s father and I are delighted that you both agree.”
This was something Glory and Thomas had never discussed. If he’d been there, he would have squeezed her leg, a silent Please don’t argue with my mother. Glory felt it then, that peculiar knot at the back of her neck that tensed whenever she came to a crossroads. The prospect of disappointing Thomas so boldly was the only thing that stayed her tongue. Unfortunately, that reticence extended to the rest of their exchange.
“So, no siblings.” “No.”
“You didn’t enjoy that, I’m sure. Kids need companions, don’t you think?”
Every minute that passed without Thomas by her side, Glory felt as though a veil was slipping off her, revealing more and more of her true nature. With every question his mother asked, and every terse answer she gave, Glory felt his mother close off a bit, leaning back as though to consider what manner of girl she was. Her interior was frantic, grasping for something interesting to say, but monosyllables were all she could manage.
After thirty minutes, his mother’s pleasantness had cooled to politeness and Glory excused herself to the bathroom before it chilled further.
You have to come back now, she texted Thomas. Now! And he did, just as his mother grew serious and leaned in to have some say. Perfect timing as always.
With Thomas there, the ease between the two women returned, but the more they talked, the more his mother touched on the expectation that Glory would drop everything and go back to Nigeria and live there with her hypothetical children, in her mother-in-law’s house. Thomas was most comfortable in Nigeria and would move back when he was done with schooling to join Glory, who would already be settled. If the idea had been hers, or if she’d even been asked, Glory might not have minded, but all this was delivered as a given, not a choice. All Thomas’s talk of we and us felt less like a collaboration now and more like a general commanding his troops. It surprised Glory to realize that she had not been the only one scheming.
After they took his mother to her hotel, Thomas and Glory idled in the parking lot, each waiting for the other to break the silence. Then, offering neither apology nor explanation, Thomas placed a box on Glory’s lap. She opened it, the hinge levering to reveal a ring that, just a year ago, she would never have imagined herself receiving. The tension returned to her neck.
A part of Glory had always thought to win her parents’ good graces by her own merit. She held out hope that one day all her missteps would stumble her into accomplishments she could hold up as her own, that the seeming chaos of her life would coalesce into an intricate puzzle whose shape one could see only when it was complete. That this ring was to be her salvation—she couldn’t bear it. And yet, salvation it was. Acceptance into many proper folds. Lies she would never again have to tell. She could lose herself in the whirlwind of Thomas, golden child become golden man.
But then Glory thought back to that first time she’d turned her luck with a truly reckless move, the thing with the dog. There was her uncle’s dog, napping. She’d felt antsy all over and a thought wormed into her head, that the tension would go away if she touched the dog’s tongue. It suddenly seemed the right and only thing to do. She rubbed the scar now, thinking of all the times she’d picked stupid over sensible, knowing, just knowing, that this time she’d gotten it right. She could not afford to get it wrong again.
Looking at the ring, resentment and elation warred till one overcame the other and Glory made another decision.