Authors: Emma Straub
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
A waiter wearing a white coat showed them to a table. She didn’t remember the restaurant being so fancy. Laura and Stephen both took the folded napkins off their empty plates and put them on their laps, hidden from each other but not from the passersby. John had always liked sitting in the window, too, like some kind of puppet show.
Look at me accumulate crumbs in my napkin, look at me drop my knife, look at me hold his hand
. She and Stephen wouldn’t be holding hands under the table, though. They were past that. It had been nearly a year and a half. It still felt wrong to say boyfriend, which made her feel like a lusty teenager. Thirty-five was too old to have a boyfriend. Some of her unmarried friends had taken to borrowing the homosexual-sounding parlance
, which always made Laura roll her eyes and give a little cough. Sometimes the word
came out of her mouth, and people would roll their eyes, ready to commiserate, they had one, too, and she would have to say, no, no, he died, he’s dead. Stephen would lower his eyes and pet her arm, always supportive, but she just wanted to say,
Don’t you get that I would still be married?
So mostly she just called him her husband, and if people thought she meant Stephen, well, that was fine. His face always colored slightly with the notion.
They ordered the artichokes and the house pasta,
cacio e pepe
, cheese and pepper. Stephen ordered a bottle of white off of the wine list, and then some veal Milanese, a nice oily start to the afternoon. Stephen preferred French food, and they were always eating something or other provençal. When the
artichokes arrived, the neighborhood specialty, a pang of something stronger than hunger hit Laura square in the gut. It was too much, sitting in this room, tasting the same taste, looking out at the same street. She was two-timing herself, covering her discarded artichoke leaves with fresher ones, still crisp from the frying oil—John wouldn’t say that he minded, couldn’t, but she knew, and that was bad enough. If he’d been there, sitting across the street, watching them, he would have picked up a rock and thrown it through the window. He would still be young and impetuous. Laura was glad she didn’t know the Italian word for
. It was probably beautiful, too beautiful for the way she felt. She wondered if Italian whores ate artichokes, or if they had a dish all their own.
“Delicious, huh?” Stephen shoveled a forkful of something creamy into his mouth. He was more handsome than John. She could say that. Next to Stephen, Laura was always aware of where the real beauty was in her relationship. Her friends, sweetly, had tried in vain to stifle their surprise when she’d introduced him.
He was right; it was delicious. Everything Laura put in her mouth tasted like it ought to have been there before. Maybe food was the same as people and got more attractive the more you were exposed.
“Is this bacon?” Stephen held up a fork—something brown and glistening teetered on the tines.
“I guess so. Does it taste like bacon?”
He popped it in his mouth and chewed. “Tastes like a gift from God.”
“So what’s the problem?”
Stephen looked around. Two other parties sat in the dining room, but no one was at a directly adjacent table. Everyone else was speaking Italian and laughing. “Isn’t this basically a no-no? Bacon? I mean, this place is Jewish, right?”
It was an honest question. “How am I supposed to know? I think being Italian trumps not eating pork products, maybe. I’ll be right back.” Laura dropped her napkin onto her plate and walked around the restaurant until she found the bathroom, where she sat down on the toilet and cried.
It had taken months for the details to emerge: Stephen hadn’t actually been married. They—he and Jane, the marathon runner, the blonde, the mourned—hadn’t even been engaged. He told Laura carefully. It had been easier, he explained, to say that they were married. The old ladies in the bereavement group had taken him to task. Not only was he young, only in his late thirties, but he also hadn’t married the girl. What were they supposed to support, his indifference? His unwillingness to commit? Laura didn’t want to admit feeling some of the same resentment, but she knew what it meant. Despite his sadness, which she did not dismiss, Laura knew that Stephen wanted what he’d never had: a wife.
Tuesday was even cooler weather than they’d expected, only fifty degrees. They walked down the Via del Condotti and watched Japanese tourists lumber under the weight of their shopping bags. The window displays weren’t as elaborate as they were in New York, but Laura didn’t object—it seemed like the Romans didn’t have to do as much convincing. In one window, a leather suitcase the size of an entire cow sat by
itself, patiently waiting for someone to buy so much extra clothing that they needed it to carry their belongings home.
In front of them, two women in skintight jeans and high heels stabbed the sidewalk with an aggressive pace. Laura had always thought of herself as a fast walker, but these women, in four-inch heels, put her to shame. Of course, she didn’t know where she was going.
“Want to duck in here, maybe?” Stephen gestured toward an open doorway. The store seemed to be made entirely out of glass and white plastic, like something from the future. Laura wondered if they’d had to tear down whatever gorgeous, ancient building had been there to put this in, but then she noticed that the walls and ceiling were actually still intact, the moldings and the carved putti hovering over the doorway outside, the angels of commerce. It only looked like something new, but really it was the same as all the others.
“Sure, why not. When in Rome, right?” Laura liked this joke when she was at home, and being pressured into doing something, but when the pun came out of her mouth, she felt nauseated, and like she was trying entirely too hard for something she didn’t want in the first place.
“Exactly.” Stephen took her by the elbow and led her into the shop.
An Italian woman roughly Laura’s age approached them, her hands clasped in front of her chest like a nun. Her dark brown hair was wound into an elaborate chignon, so expert it looked professionally done.
Shopgirls must make more money here
, Laura thought.
Commission. No wonder she looks like she’s praying.
But before Laura could even finish thinking about all the
money she wouldn’t spend, Stephen recited some Italian phrase. Laura’s neck swiveled quickly, trying to see the words as they left his mouth. Had he been practicing in the bathroom? They had been together for the last three days nonstop. She tried to catalog all the times he’d been away from her: showers, bathroom time at home and at restaurants, that was it. She could see it, though, the moment she got up in the middle of the night to pee, he’d whip out his phrasebook from under the bed and try furiously to memorize something without saying it aloud.
The salesgirl nodded and beckoned for them to follow. The store was full of clothing, leather goods, shoes. What had he asked for? Laura had heard of the designer, everyone had—come to think of it, Laura had first read about them on the pages of the magazine in a piece she’d edited, something about “the new luxury.” In a brief, horrifying flash, a four-digit number appeared in her mind’s eye. She began to sweat a little.
The woman showed them to a wall of purses, although it seemed a shame to call them that, like something one’s mother would bring on the crosstown bus. These were something else entirely, a class of handbag Laura had never encountered up close. Stephen pointed to one, an oversized shoulder bag with shiny buckles where the straps connected to the body. The woman took it off the shelf—it had lived in its own cubicle, practically the size of her apartment, Laura thought—and placed it on a glass case in front of them. Despite herself, Laura reached out to touch it. It was buttery soft, the color of creamy cappuccino. She ran her hand along the length of it, sliding her fingers over the polished buckles.
She and John had spent days wandering the streets of Rome without ever going into a store like this. They’d sat on park benches and played in the grass like children. The larger part of Laura’s brain knew what something like this would do to her, and to Stephen, what it would mean.
“You like it?” Stephen looked at her expectantly. He’d been practicing. He knew what to ask for, what this thing in front of her was called. He knew its name.
“It’s astounding, actually, but I really can’t let you buy this for me.” The leather felt cherished, something you would keep forever, and then your children would fight over it. She wanted it. She would never use it, just keep it in its bag, surrounded by tissue paper, or no, she would use it every day, no one would ever see her without it. Even when she went running in Prospect Park, it would be like a third arm, only with pockets.
Stephen gently set his credit card down on the counter, and nodded. The salesgirl had seen this sort of interaction before and didn’t raise an eyebrow. Laura wondered what she was thinking, but didn’t know how to stop what had already been put in motion. She imagined stamping her feet and walking out of the store, saying something like
how dare you
, making all of the other shoppers turn and stare. Instead she just watched with her mouth slightly open as the bag was wrapped and decorated like a Christmas tree, and tried to smile.
Laura liked to think that she knew a little about poetry, and it seemed appropriately redemptive to leave the crowded sidewalks and glossy storefronts for a dark apartment. The
John Keats house was right next to the Spanish Steps, just a bit farther down the street. They walked in the small side door and up a flight of stairs, Laura still clutching her shopping bag as if to ward off thieving poets, dead or alive. She could always sell it later, she thought. It didn’t really mean anything to her, not like the inexpensive wedding band she’d worn for years, a year even after John’s death.
The museum was small, only a few rooms, and even those rooms were mostly just bookshelves. Laura and Stephen circled each other, moving in and out of each small room, stopping here and there to examine a poem mounted on the wall, or a lock of hair in a glass case. Keats had only lived there a few months, while trying to stave off the inevitable, and so there weren’t very many of his things to gawk at—it wasn’t like Graceland, where Laura had once looked at every object and thought, that was Elvis’s toothbrush, that was Elvis’s ashtray.
The smallest room, overlooking the steps, was where he had actually died. There was a plaque—
In this room / on the 23rd of February 1821 / died / John Keats
, so she knew for sure. Laura reached that room first, while Stephen was reading some Byron in the gift shop. In spite of the swanky location, and the view of the Bernini fountain below, Laura thought it did look like a room in which someone would die. It was narrow, with little more than a bed. His friends would have had to crouch beside him, or to pull in a chair from another room. There were letters he had written, his longhand still sharp and angled—did someone come in and help prop him up, tuck a firm pillow behind his back? He had been young, even younger than
John, whom she had
always imagined as the youngest person who ever died, as though the amount of unfairness would increase if there were no one younger. His loss had been the greatest squandering.
It took her a few minutes to notice the death mask. It was in a small glass cube, floating on a piece of dark cherrywood, suitably somber. His eyes were closed, his lips slightly parted. His nose was large and curved. The pale color—even more white than ivory—looked about right. He probably hadn’t eaten in days. He hadn’t seen the sun in weeks; the curtains had kept his skin from the light, which would have hurt his eyes. Laura had seen it. She had sat right here, in this chair, beside this bed, held John’s hand while it sweat and twitched. Cancer wasn’t so different from consumption, really. You were still being eaten alive from the inside out. Laura shut her eyes when she heard footsteps. Stephen was a large man, and his footfalls were heavy, always announcing his arrival. John had been quiet, a shadow from the beginning.
“At least it was gradual,” Stephen said. “He knew what was coming.” He was talking about Keats, but Laura was still sitting by her John’s bed, holding her husband’s cold hand.
Jane, the blond, the good, the dead, had gone quickly. This was a dangerous patch of ice they sometimes skated across, too thin to support their combined weight. “Better to be hit by a bus,” she said. “Then all anyone can remember is how gorgeous you were, how effervescent and funny. This way, it’s like dying all day long, every day, and everyone who loves you gets to watch as bits and pieces chip off.” She pointed to the death mask. “Do you think that’s how he looked? His cheeks all sunken and jowly? He was a kid!” In
the first months after John’s death, before she started seeing Rose, Laura had gone to some meetings for widows held at the Y nearest her house. She was the youngest by nearly fifty years. She didn’t know what they were complaining about, these old women who’d had entire lives with their husbands, babies, babies who’d had babies. All she had were some poems he’d written in college, his books, his clothes, a few years, and his early death.
“I guess you’re right,” Stephen said, swallowing. He didn’t always take the bait. In the dark room, his blond curls looked like hiding places for secret objects, tiny treasures. Laura thought he looked like Batman, his handsome face a series of planes all leading up to his strong chin. It was the sort of chin a boxer would love.
Laura and Stephen had been dating nearly six months before Laura wanted to have sex. John had been her first, her only, and just getting over the weirdness of it all took longer than she expected. Every time she and Stephen would be tangled up on the couch, making out fully clothed, she would feel his erection through his pants and she would have to leave. She just wasn’t sure she could go through with it.
The day it happened, John had been dead for three years and seven months. Jane the blond and good had been gone half as long. They only needed to do it once, and Laura remembered,
. Then she wanted to have sex all the time. Not only was it fun, but it was an excellent way to get Stephen to stop looking at her with those green eyes, too green for her. All of a sudden, she didn’t feel like just a widow anymore, the walking reminder to all of her friends and
colleagues that they, too, would die someday or, even worse, have to be saddled with this kind of loss. She bought a new lipstick and lost five pounds. Everyone told her how good she looked, even John’s mother, who must have guessed the reason.