Authors: Heidi Jon Schmidt
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This book was written for Marisa Rose.
We wanted to fly Swissair—Switzerland being neutral, the gods would never dash an airliner full of nice well-tailored Swiss people back to earth in flames. But the connection to Venice wouldn’t work and we had to go Lufthansa. Garrett was reading
The Decline of the West,
looking up only to order more scotch from the stewardess, who glanced at me with pity, I thought, for my having got stuck beside him. We don’t seem married: he’s twenty years older and his general fury shows in his face, while I look helpful and trustworthy, his amanuensis maybe, or his nurse. I had on a black jersey suit, bought for the trip; his corduroys were worn translucent and his elbows came through his sweater. What does it matter to him what the living see? A celestial jury will consider what he’s reading and spare him, for the first leg of the flight at least.
As we lined up to debark in Frankfurt, the stewardess flicked a curtain shut between us: I went out one side while Garrett and those behind him were directed to the other. I waited at the foot of the ramp until even the pilot was off, and the sign announcing Flight 172 from Boston flipped to read Flight 433 for Hong Kong, but Garrett never came.
I tried the Venice gate, but no luck and no wonder: he didn’t know the time or number of the connecting flight, and who knew if he’d remember the destination? He can get lost in a supermarket—why had I ever let go of his hand? Over the public address system a cruel voice snapped out the departures.
you wished him away: Germany will oblige you.
I had him paged, but hearing his name in the heavy accent knew he’d never recognize it, so I ran from gate to gate, up and down the escalators and along the endless conveyor belt between terminals, reaching the Venice gate for the third time to find him leaning beside the metal detector, reading the chapter on “Faustian Physics and the Dogma of Force.” When he saw me, he sighed and let the book fall to his side—“I almost gave up,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.” They’d sent him to a lower floor and he’d gone through one terminal and then another until he stumbled into the right spot. Tears stung my eyes at the thought of him lost and frightened, all alone. I lay my head on his shoulder, kissed his unshaven cheek, looked into his eyes that found only fault with me.
He had been seized, after six years of marriage, with the conviction that I was the wrong woman—he loved me, of course, but every time I took off my clothes he felt a dreadful disappointment. He wouldn’t have brought it up, but somehow the night before the trip I’d started complaining that he never tells me anything really important, anything that resides in his deepest heart, that it made me feel lonely, as if I hardly knew him.
“Well, if you really want to know…,” he began, and went on at some length, ending by insisting that this was a sacred instinct—awful, yes—but wasn’t life
awful, after all?
“A sacred instinct!”
I roared. “You said you were a rationalist! I
a rationalist! A sacred instinct, I have never heard anything so ridiculous.” And on I went, shrieking and sobbing, dripping contempt, begging, suggesting he suffered from some ocular or neurological problem and ought to get help from a professional. All of which only inflamed him, until he declared that of all the women he’d slept with (and the one time he’d tried to count he’d had to give up at three hundred) I was the
“Worse than the dwarf?”
“Well, the dwarf…”
“Worse than the woman who peed in her shoes?”
His eyes narrowed, and he looked ready to slit my throat for the honor of the woman who peed in her shoes, and I started crying again and vowed to become a nudist and stick my revolting self under his nose every day for the rest of his life, though in fact I instantly hid myself like a Muslim and began hanging my head so as not to inflict my ugliness on any innocent passersby. When you marry you take a share in someone else’s nightmares; this was something I hadn’t known.
Exhausted, disgusted, Garrett sat down to comfort me. There was nothing to worry about, he said, he’d always be loyal. I wanted a child, he would see that I got one. His formal locutions, the Calvinist rectitude I’d always loved, began to unnerve me. Was he taking me to Italy then to find a father for my child? I’ve never seen a working marriage, how would I know what one looks like? I fastened my seat belt: We were circling down over the fourteenth century, a gilded fantasia of pink marble domes reflected in an Adriatic shimmer, the city encompassing east and west, ancient and modern, exquisite beauties, and tortures …
“Venezia,” Garrett said. “It takes your breath away.”
It’s the closest airport to my sister Etta (generally spoken of as
), whose husband works in a box factory near Mestre, and whom one must visit when traveling—else, all alone and away from her family, how would she survive? During the visit one raves on about the food, the wine, the art, the romance … lest Etta, who lives among a profusion of in-laws in an industrial valley, fail to realize how lucky she is. (No need to link poor Etta with lucky Etta—one pities or envies her as the occasion requires.) Our parents imagine her in Amalfi—they haven’t spoken since their divorce, so neither knows what the other is thinking, and now they always agree. I don’t tell them this, as it would drive them mad—like looking in the mirror and seeing the person you most despise. I do hint that Etta’s is not
la dolce vita,
but this is taken as malicious and has made me the hapless recipient of bushels of Italian tourist brochures, coffee-table books on Tuscany and Bellagio, a case of Chianti, and gallons of extra virgin olive oil, all meant to help me recognize Etta’s great good fortune.
I called her from a pay phone on the airport quay.
She clings to the American accent as if it’s her last possession; she will not roll an
She refuses, even by Italy, to be carried away. This is my doing: our parents being transfixed by their own drama, I raised her, and her faults reflect my own. I was emotionally ungainly, throwing myself into things and at people—at my high school graduation, for instance, I leapt into the arms of a beloved teacher and knocked him off the podium. It was embarrassing, and Etta had to study me very carefully to avoid becoming like me. She’s made a great success of it—she’s perfectly cool and still, a pale flower alone in its vase.
“It’s me, silly,” I said, feeling this was unwelcome news.
“Oh, hi,” she said. “You sounded Italian … Where are you?”
“Venezia!” Did it come as a surprise? The trip had been planned for weeks, and I’d called her from Frankfurt, too.
“We can’t pick you up,” she said. “Gino can’t get off work.” And she’d given up her driver’s license long ago—the butcher and bakery are a block away, and Gino takes her to the
on Saturdays—she has no need to drive. So I’d have to come by bus—was that so far beneath me? It was very suspicious, my flying into Venice when everyone else saves fifty dollars by getting a cheap charter to Milan and taking the train. Who did I think I was? Just as Etta is envied and pitied, I am envied and despised. I seem to be succeeding and they hate me, while Etta ekes along, suffering but beloved—each one gets something; it’s all fair in the end. I’d driven myself nearly mad in the mall before we left, trying to find a gift she’d think neither ostentatious nor stingy, settling on a flowery skirt without noticing it was the image of one she’d borrowed from me years ago and never returned. The card might have read, “Here, take, so you won’t have to steal.”
Because she was, in essence, a thief. This I mulled bitterly as the water taxi churned through the lagoon, cocooned in a thick fog; it felt like succumbing to a dream. A tuft of marsh grass would emerge, followed by the barber pole mooring that marked each island estate, then a dock thrust out of pure fog: once a woman in a silk scarf and sunglasses materialized and stepped regally into the boat. Etta never wanted anything but what I had—she followed me to college, studied art like me, moved to Boston where I found her a job in a friend’s gallery (they didn’t take her seriously, and paid a pitiable wage), an apartment (roaches, sad neighborhood, landlady insane), and a boyfriend (another hand-me-down) … No, I never gave what she deserved. Meanwhile Garrett bought a painting of mine, then another, then I was going over to help hang them, then … Etta went back to my mother’s, got work as a temp. When I visited she touched my clothing as if calculating how to get it for herself, and then I walked into the kitchen and found her copying a drawing of mine line for line as if she intended to divine my central mystery and make off with that, too.
I became ruthless. Study music, I told her, and she took up the flute, though she knew that if music were worth anything I would have played. Then I married Garrett without one thought for what might become of her. The night before the wedding I found her reading
A Spinster’s Life,
a bestseller from 1940 that had latterly found a niche under the back leg of my bureau. “It seems like something I need to prepare for,” she told me. The next week my mother called to say she was taking Etta on a cruise: “I’ve got to do
with her,” she said. To Etta she spoke of dancing under the stars and dining at the captain’s table as if they would be sipping champagne on a transatlantic steamer instead of going around in Caribbean circles while practicing the merengue with a bunch of retirees.
Gino was the cabin steward; he pulled a rose out of someone’s bon voyage bouquet and gave it to Etta before the ship left New York. “Italian men,” Mother sighed, reporting back to me. “
know what romance is. They never forget how to act toward a woman.” And she called to mind a time, on her honeymoon, when a croupier leaned in so his lips just brushed her neck as he slid her chips onto 15 red; the winning number. She’s a child, an innocent child—it looks absurd, a grown woman like Etta taking advice from her.
“Don’t fall for somebody just because you can’t understand what he’s saying!” I said, and Etta cast (in the mirror; she was dressing for her trip to visit Gino’s parents in Villa Padesi) a contemptuous glance at me—what made me so prim? Had I forgotten that mathematician who blinked like an owl as I declared my adoration, then scratched his head violently with both hands and refused my dinner invitation by explaining that he ate only from the basement vending machines? And what about the dance/philosophy major who wanted to give body to Wittgenstein and refused to acknowledge me in daylight? (This: he crept into my room at night and touched me with such natural urgency it seemed we were growing into each other like vines.) Not to mention my lesbian phase …
All right, I said. I freely admit it; love is—
—absurd. But this wasn’t love, it was marriage! And marriage, I insisted, is pragmatic, if unconsciously so. Think of Garrett’s general raggedness, his hired assassin look: marrying him was like buying a pit bull in terms of keeping the relatives at bay. And a Calvinist pit bull—as long as my behavior was appropriate he never so much as snarled—it was almost like having parents. When he proposed, I’d asked how well he could keep me (traditionally a father’s duty and I’d long since taken these over), and he naturally drove me straight to his attorney, who set out the family accounts. Yes, yes, of course I loved him and we had all the mystery of sex between us, but
pragmatism made the marriage!
What could she say for Gino in the department of utility?