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Authors: Rachel Pastan

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BOOK: Alena: A Novel
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Bernard stepped back, tilted his head, squinted, sighed. “These make me think of Celia Cowry,” he said. “But they’re completely different.”

“I was thinking exactly the same thing!” We looked at each other, suddenly near hilarity. “I didn’t think anyone but me had heard of her!” I said.

“I’ve known her for years. She’s from my part of the world.”

“Cape Cod.” No wonder she was interested in shells. “Have you shown her at the Nauk?”

The moment I said the name, I knew it was a mistake. Without moving, Bernard withdrew. His eyes grew distant and his nose seemed to grow straighter, keen as a blade. He looked at his watch, feigned surprise. Or maybe he really was surprised, maybe he had stepped out of time and the squawked syllable from my lips had sent him tumbling back into it. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I have to meet someone.” Maybe he really did.

I went back to the Hotel da Silva.

As I went up in the cramped, clanking elevator, dazed and thrilled by what I had seen, and at my own daring at having seen it, dread sent butterflies fluttering up and down my veins. The fourth-floor hallway was quiet. I had trouble fitting my key into the lock, and my sweaty hand slipped on the small brass knob. Inside: silent chaos. My exhausted eyes took it in slowly, the rucked bedclothes, the crumbs and damp spots on the carpet, glasses everywhere, some with cigarette butts floating in dregs of wine and gin. The stink of smoke, the striped chair overturned, and—most disturbing—in the bathroom a ring around the tub, the tap dripping with the forlorn sound of superfluous water flowing back into the aquifer of a drowned city. The connecting door was ajar, but no sound came from Louise’s room. I dared to hope she might be absent—or if not absent, at least sleeping, drunkenly or otherwise, after her day of debauchery. But when I peered through the crack, I saw she wasn’t.

Even more than my own, Louise’s room seemed to have been shaken like a snow globe by a giant hand. Furniture, bottles, glasses, shriveling lemon slices, stained and crumpled napkins, wine corks, the tops of gin bottles, a couple of scarves, a collapsed umbrella, damp towels, and bags of mostly melted ice lay in shadowy confusion all over the room. Only the bedside lamp, over which someone had thrown a red silk scarf, was turned on, and in its Martian glow I could see the erect figure in the middle of the ravaged bed. Tousled locks of hair twisted in every direction, and her eyes burned with drunken desolation.

“Do you have any idea what time it is?” she said in a raw, dull voice, and for a moment I felt I was back in LaFreniere on that stifling summer night, sneaking in the kitchen door after awakening in Tommy Starankovic’s car beside the potato field. What was Louise going to do—spank me?

I looked at my watch. “Eight,” I said brightly. “So—everyone left? Are you feeling better?” Absurd questions, but what could I have said that wouldn’t have been absurd under the circumstances?

“Eight-thirty!” she seethed. “Do you know how long you’ve been gone? My God, without a
word
? Without a
hint
? Did you think I wouldn’t notice? Or that I wouldn’t care?”

I clutched the doorjamb harder, trying not to flinch. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think you needed me.”

“Needed you? No, no—listen! Listen. It’s not a question of whether
I needed you
, it’s a question of courtesy. Common politeness. Gratitude!”

I had known she would get around to gratitude before long.

“It’s not that I’m not grateful,” I said.

“Oh?” she said. “What is it, then?”

I thought about what I could say. Not any of the true things, the sentences floating like lucid dreams in my head:
It’s that you’re a controlling witch. It’s that I despise you. I’m sick to death of gratitude!
I waited for words that could be uttered to come into my mouth, and then they did.

“I wanted to see the art,” I said.

5.

T
HAT NIGHT
I
AWOKE
several times to the sound of Louise vomiting in the bathroom adjoining mine. She didn’t call for me, though, and I didn’t go to her. I didn’t even feel particularly sorry for her.

In the morning she was hungover, wrung out, her headache blazing. She lay weakly on the pillows with no thought of picking up the phone. “I think I have a virus,” she said. “Or maybe food poisoning.” The room still looked like a tornado had hit it. Mechanically I started cleaning up, gathering the glasses onto the desk, placing the empty bottles in a row by the door, throwing trash in the bin, folding pieces of clothing that had been left behind. “Thank you,” Louise said. She sounded like she meant it. After a while she asked if I would bring her some tea. When I brought it, she lifted the cup to her face and let the steam slide over her. She pointed to a tie I had overlooked, an eggplant-colored length of silk slung over a chair. “Give me that,” she said. I did, and she laid it across her lap and stroked it gently, as though it were a pet.

“Whose is it?”

“Johannes Roth’s. He works at the Deichtorhallen.” She paused, her hand slowly smoothing the tie from the wide end to the narrow.

I wondered if I had seen him. Was he the ogler in the black-framed glasses? Had he taken off more than his tie?

“I’m going to get up,” Louise announced. “I can’t spend another day in this room.” She slid gingerly to the edge of the bed and arranged her feet on the floor, but when she tried balancing upright she wobbled and sat heavily down again, both hands pressed to her head. “Do you have any Tylenol?” she said. “Maybe just another hour in bed,” she said. She looked awful, her face blotched and sallow, her eyes ringed with smudges.

I brought her two Tylenol and a glass of water. “Can I get you anything else?”

She grimaced, a wan, unhappy attempt at a smile that was more recognizably human than the cold, critical ones she usually displayed. “I’ll be all right,” she said. “You go ahead and see what you can. I’ll meet you back here later.”

I almost wished she wasn’t acting suddenly so human. It made it harder to justify how much I despised her.

I went back into my room and shut the connecting door. I was almost dressed when the telephone rang with the long old-fashioned bell of a phone in a black-and-white movie. I let it ring for a long time—after all, I might have been in the shower—but my upbringing would not permit me to ignore it altogether.

“Oh, good!” I recognized Bernard’s voice immediately—warm, thin, half abstracted—as though I’d known him all my life. “I’d almost given up on you. Did I wake you up?”

My heart thumped hard, alarming in its puppy-dog ardor. “No. I’m awake.”

“I’m going to Padua,” Bernard said. “For the day. Do you want to come?”

Padua! For the day! Was he serious? Once in Venice for the Biennale, how could you leave? It was as preposterous as Louise spending yesterday in bed. “But there’s so much to see here,” I said.

“There’s also a lot to see in Padua.”

I laughed from the sheer fizzy absurdity of it. Somehow I had slipped out of my life into a new, quixotic dimension where desire, sudden inspiration, and contingency ruled in place of logic, toil, consequence. I was Dorothy awakened after the cyclone into Technicolor, Alice stepping through the gauzy looking glass. I was Danaë ravished by a shower of gold.

Bernard met me in the lobby wearing a seersucker suit over a white open-necked shirt, a Panama hat set jauntily on his head. He looked as though he had just stepped out of a speakeasy, except that he seemed drawn and abstracted rather than lighthearted and boozy. He took my arm without a word, almost without seeming to see me, and drew me out the door and down the hot street to the canal, taking fast strides on his long legs so that I had to almost scramble to keep up. I felt like a chess piece being conveyed from square to square. My real life began to leak away.

“Beautiful morning,” I said.

“Mm.” He stopped abruptly at the corner as a crowd of slow tourists in red T-shirts blocked the narrow street. “Come on,” he said, plunging into the stream of them, shouldering through.

“Are we late?”

No answer.

“Bernard?”

A large woman with a face as red as her T-shirt stopped to adjust her shoe, blocking our way. Bernard groaned audibly. I stumbled on the uneven pavement and he yanked me upright. “Careful,” he warned.

After that, I concentrated on keeping up.

In the water taxi, he stood with one hand on his head to keep his hat on, the other braced against the boat for balance, his gaze directed toward the smoky line of the horizon. I thought of what I might have been doing in Venice, the pavilions and auxiliary shows and spin-offs I’d made lists of. I stood up from the seat where he had placed me and edged my way to his side. “Are we taking the water taxi all the way to Padua?” I called over the buzzing motor.

He blinked at me. “What?” he said. “Padua’s not on the water.” Then he turned away. And so we rode on through the brightening morning. The canal opened up into the Venetian Lagoon and the sun blazed golden, its reflection glittering and sparkling, a million brilliant shards on a mirror of water. Gulls soared and dove, squawking their shrill laments. Did Italian gulls speak a different language from American ones? They looked the same as the birds I’d seen at Coney Island, the same as the flocks on the shore all those summers we’d rented the cabin in Door County. I shut my eyes, the spray cooling my face, and felt the unsettling slippage of time: the cold, deep blue, white-capped waters of the inland sea that was Lake Michigan, where great clipper ships had once sunk in sudden storms, and the brilliant sapphire tongue of the Mediterranean licking since the beginning of time at the stone body of the city. Worlds apart, separated by every facet of culture, language, and tradition, yet both beribboned in the sharp, aching cry of the birds that, like ghosts, seemed at home everywhere and nowhere. One of the gulls flapped down and perched on the rail of the boat. Bernard took off his hat and shook it. “Scat!” he cried. The boat man began to scold in Italian. The gull, squawking, fluttered away, caught the breeze, circled back and settled again, and again Bernard chased it away.

“What do you have against the poor bird?” I cried.

He turned slowly toward me and lowered his sunglasses. “They’re filthy,” he said. “Garbage eaters. Corpse pickers.”

“Corpse
what
?”

He straightened, his joints moving stiffly, clumsily. “They’re like vultures or rats. Eating carrion, pecking at the dead.”

“There aren’t any corpses here.” I gestured at the blue waves with their clean caps of foam, risking a little impatience with him. Risking the reference to drowning.

Bernard pushed his sunglasses back up his flared nose and looked skyward. “They found a body in the canal this morning,” he said. Behind his head the sky seemed to pulse, shimmering around the edges. My heart felt odd and heavy, waterlogged.

“Whose?”

“A woman’s. A prostitute’s, probably. They haven’t identified her yet.” His lips pressed together, the color going out of them. I could feel him watching me from behind the smoky glass. “A city built on water,” he said, his voice tight and cracked, a thin vessel crazed with fault lines. “It’s lucky they found her at all! She might easily have drifted out to sea and disappeared.”

I stared at him, cold in the hot sun. Was he thinking of Alena washed out to sea? Imagining her body desecrated by gulls? I stepped toward him and reached for his hand. He was trembling.
Alena
, I thought.
Alena—
afraid of accidentally saying the name aloud. I had never heard Bernard say it, but I began to understand that he never stopped thinking of her. She was the shadow in which he was always walking. Maybe he didn’t want to be free.

Once we had retrieved the car, a pale green BMW convertible, from the island of parking, Bernard cheered up. Tucking his hat under the seat, he pressed the button to retract the roof, and the clean blue sky spread placidly above us, a few puffy clouds scattered picturesquely. Before long we were speeding down a shimmering narrow highway between black and yellow fields, and Bernard began to sing in Italian, something bold and melodic that I supposed was opera. He sped around a slow-moving Fiat with a great roar of the engine and a hot blast of wind. I laughed, holding my hair back with my hands. I felt safe, as though we were on a roller-coaster ride on a closed track, enjoying the thrill and the speed, knowing there was no real danger.

“Do you like to go fast?” he shouted over the noise of the car and the road.

I nodded. “Do you keep a car in every city?” I yelled back.

His bristly grizzled head gleamed silver and black in the sun. “It belongs to a friend of mine!” He passed a semi truck on the straightaway, and my heart, like a sun inside my chest, glowed. We sped past fields of waving grass, neat vineyards on a gentle hill, stands of tall frondy trees. I shut my eyes and gave myself up to the rush and the sun. It was too noisy to talk, and what was there to say anyway? I was happy, happy in a way that seemed, like a great painting, to make words superfluous. I didn’t care if we never got to Padua.

But we did get there, after only about an hour. We strolled down the streets of little shops and old painted doors and flowered iron balconies. We walked slowly, arm in arm, pointing out merchandise in shop windows: a scarf, a glass, a pair of shoes. Bernard moved through the streets solidly, gracefully, like a man on horseback. The top of my head came up just to his shoulder, and I smelled the clean cloth of his jacket, the old stone of the buildings, smoke, earth, and, faintly, the briny orange of his cologne. I leaned closer, breathing it in.

We came to a restaurant, a long low room a few steps down from the street, where Paduans on their lunch hour ate plates of thinly sliced veal with anchovies. We ordered the same, and a carafe of wine, which we drank out of tumblers, talking of the summer weather, the Italian roads, the landscape. I told him I was surprised at how empty the fields had seemed: in Wisconsin the corn stretched right up to the highways. All the land was organized, improved, accounted for. You could measure the progress of summer by the height of the corn. How did you measure the season here, I wondered. Or did the Italians drift through time, marking centuries rather than months, permitting fields to grow their own crops of grasses and wildflowers?

“Where else have you been in Italy?” Bernard asked.

“Nowhere.”

“Not to Florence? Not to Rome? No junior year abroad? No whirlwind art history class trip in college?”

I explained that at my college almost no one went abroad. I had begun to understand that this wasn’t the norm in the kinds of colleges art-world people generally went to, but it didn’t seem unreasonable to me. Wasn’t the leap from the farm or the small town to the college campus enough cultural dislocation? Wasn’t college education itself enough of a voyage? All around us, well-dressed people ate their veal, keeping their knives in their right hands, their lyrical, unintelligible speech rising and swirling like music. It was as though we were alone, Bernard and I, on a green island floating in the lapping sea. Leaning over the table to refill my glass, he touched a finger to my earlobe. “Look,” he said. “You don’t even have pierced ears.”

Over coffee, Bernard told me about growing up on Cape Cod, where the land was always changing, literally reshaped year after year by storms and tides. “When I was twelve, my father had our house raised up and moved thirty yards back. It would have fallen into the ocean otherwise. Up till then we’d only spent summers in Nauquasset, but we moved there year-round that fall. He had retired early, because of his health, and he wanted to see the ocean every day.”

“Was that hard for you? The move?”

“No. Nauquasset always felt like home to me. I loved it there. Have you been to the Cape?”

I shook my head.

“It’s barely land at all. Just a curved ribbon unrolling into the blue—or smoky gray—Atlantic. The sky is so wide open, and everything is always in motion. The grass, the flags, the clouds. Even the land, shifting under you. It’s a bleak landscape in some ways, especially in winter, but I’ve never been anywhere else I felt so alive.” A vibrancy I hadn’t seen before rinsed through him while he was speaking. His gray face flushed, his eyes softened, and his hunched spine straightened like a tree growing toward the light.

After lunch we strolled down arcaded streets and past green lawns dotted with neatly trimmed shrubs. There was a line at the modest brick building that was our destination—modest, anyway, compared with San Marco—but Bernard had tickets and strode unhurriedly to the front. “Are you ready?” he whispered in my ear. He held my hand as if I were a child.

“Ready for what?” I leaned into him, the soft ridges of the seersucker pressed into me as I stretched my mouth toward his ear.

“Ready to burn.”

And so we went into the Scrovegni Chapel.

At first it was hard to take anything in but the sound of feet ringing against the tiles, the coolness of the narrow space. Then the blue arch of the roof pulled my eyes up, glinting with painted stars. The ribbon of portraits led my gaze along the barrel vault, and I began to take it in: the aching blue and the clear burnished pinks, the solid, graceful figures reaching, bending, kneeling, weeping, soaring (in the case of the angels), the way the scenes floated in space like visions, yet at the same time settled the space around them, making of them shimmering transparent windows into the divine.

BOOK: Alena: A Novel
4.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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