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[Story]

Padua, 1966

Gawker, by Amy Bennett. Courtesy the artist and Miles McEnery Gallery, New York City

[Story]

Padua, 1966

Miranda was tall and as dark-haired as they come. I say was and not is and that is inaccurate because she is still around and I really am not.

She wasn’t exactly beautiful and as I say that I can hear the men in town hiss. Men, of course, look for different markers. Fine—she was beautiful. Is beautiful. Everybody likes a story with a beautiful woman and this one has two. Miranda had hair like soaked beetles. A big nose, the kind that looks good on a voluptuous woman. She was forty-four the last time I saw her.

And Sol was seventy-five. Still had the brick house in Mendham with the oval vinyl pool he meant to turn gunite. He talked about it every year. Got quotes every summer. Then it turned August and he figured life passed so quickly. Anyway, vinyl was soft on the feet.

Miranda was married to Luke, a WASP. They had a daughter named Caroline, a name I’ve never understood. He was very handsome, her husband. They had a small but nicely renovated cape with a quarter acre he paid someone to mow. They fell out of love because they were never in love. He liked to get behind her and she liked the stability of a WASP, the sharp edges, clean ears, stick-shift Saab. It ended when Caroline was three. The excitement of having a child had sloughed off. The kid was like a marble countertop with water stains. This precious thing that they still had to worry over long after it had lost its luster. Well, I don’t think that’s true of Luke. I think Luke loved the kid more than he loved himself. But you know most parents really don’t feel that way. They just can’t admit it. It’s the end of the world when they do.

Before it got very bad between her and Luke, Miranda used to come over and see me. Because I didn’t drive she would pick me up and take me to Newark and we’d get osso buco together. Both of us Italian, we had the same tastes. More specifically, I had the tastes of her dead mother. We would get eel, anchovies, meaty graffiti eggplants. And struffoli, how she loved struffoli. She said they were exactly the size and stickiness of childhood.

Miranda was a whore. I don’t know how else to say it. The way she spoke to men, to all men. It was obscene. Fat men, old men, boys. Like her tongue was a snake. At the fish market in particular there was a black boy. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen. She eyed him and let him eye her. And more. She leaned over the counter when it came time to pay. Sometimes she paid for me. I suppose she knew then how it might come back to her. She leaned over the counter with her tan chest and her low-cut tops. The boy’s name was Malcolm. It said so on his white coat. He didn’t know a thing about fish.

After we went shopping we’d go for espresso. There was a place on Adams called Caffè Espresso Italia. Everybody in her group went to Starbucks, or the kind of place that sells day-old croissants in a muggy window. But Miranda understood the importance of good coffee. My treat, she would say, almost every Sunday. Then we’d sit by the window and talk. One of the last times I saw her, she told me the story.

—I’m leaving Luke, she said. Her arm jangled with all her silver bracelets as she lifted her cup to drink.

Stai zitta, I said. I didn’t believe her.

—No, Zia, e vero. Sometimes she called me Zia. I can’t say it didn’t warm me.

—What happened? Why?

—He’s a pig, she said. This was insanity. Luke was a mouse. Everything about him you could throw in a laundry basket and forget about until the morning.

—Stop it.

—He is, Zia. You wouldn’t believe it, some of the things he wants me to do.

—What does he want you to do? I asked. Now I was interested.

She leaned into my face and whispered. Her breath was hot and wet. I could sense in that moment what it was like to be with her in that way. I heard from some people in the neighborhood she used to go with women in college. But all young people were that way now. Just pubic bones and telephones.

What she told me was lewd but by no means vile. Luke wanted to subjugate her in certain ways. He wanted to do it outside on their composite deck, in full view of the neighborhood. But in the middle of the night. While the child slept of course. Anyway he was her husband.

—That’s it? I said.

—No, she said, exhaling, as though she still smoked cigarettes. I of course did, and she would accompany me outside for them. But I wasn’t one of those smokers who smoked between meals. Those idiots.

—What else?

—He hates the president. And that’s fine, you know, whatever. But he’s one of these, you know, these bleeding hearts.

Non sapevi?

—Of course I knew a little. But no. You know this new time, it brings everything out in people.

I nodded.

—Zia, I just can’t stand him. I hate him. I hate the way he swallows his food, you know?

I laughed. She was so young. At forty-four I had been much older than her. Perhaps I was misremembering.

—What about the kid? I said.

That is when she began to cry. Not plain tears, but torrential. I was always uncomfortable when women cried. I didn’t know how to be with them. I touched her arm. It was moist. She was like a candle. Her hair smelled like smoke, mine, and perfume, hers. Candy-smelling, cheap-smelling, though probably it was engineered to smell cheap. There was so much I didn’t care to understand anymore. Perhaps that’s why I got sick shortly thereafter. God knows when you’re done learning.

—What is it? I said.

Through her heaving tears she told me, in quiet, low-class Italian, that she didn’t care about the child the way a mother should. That Caroline was better off with her father than with a mother who felt cheated by the terrific responsibility of a child. She told me that when the child cried nothing tugged in her heart. Not even when she was very sick with the flu, as she had been that winter. Even when the child’s temperature shot up to 106 and Luke called the doctor in the middle of the night, trembling, Miranda said she only bided her time until she could go back to bed. She was in the habit of taking sleeping pills and she was irritated that the effect was wearing off, the head clearing to make way for the fuck of day. That was the phrase she used. I have never spoken like that, although I have certainly thought in scandalous ways.

I can’t say I was surprised. I knew what type of woman she was. She told me there was yet more. A man, of course, as there always must be. A black man, she said, her voice a growl. She knew I would be stunned and she loved that I was. She said how much it turned her on to be had by a black man. He lived only a few blocks away from the café we were in. She said, in fact, that while we had been sitting there he’d sent her a message on her phone asking if she wanted to come by to be laid. She talked about the size of him. The ebony muscles.

—What does he do? I asked. I thought of the fish boy.

She cast her thick tan neck back and laughed, hideously.

—Zia, God help me, I think he sells drugs.

—What?

—I mean I know he does. He sells crack cocaine. He has a cot for a bed and his bathroom is a shared one down a dirty hallway. I love to be laid in his bed. I love how I feel lying there after it’s over. I feel like I’m bleeding out.

I said I needed a cigarette. She laughed and we went outside and that was when the cough started. Of course it started sooner than that, but that was when I noted it. The first time I noted it. You can sense your own mortality more in the presence of someone who has found a new bead on life.

I  would like to tell you, if you care to know it, that I never learned to drive. I came to this country and never got behind a wheel. One of my first few months in the States I was talking to some girlfriends on a stoop in Orange. We were all smoking cigarettes. Some of us had children and on those afternoons when our husbands were at work we ran out of things to do by midday. In the summer the parks were too hot, the streets were too hot. Nowadays in July and August you can’t find any mothers in their hometowns, trying to fit their children’s bodies into hot metal swings. They are all at the beach, at the lake. Their families have houses somewhere with an ocean breeze, or they have cousins in Colorado with money and multiple bedrooms. Back when I was young it wasn’t like that and this one afternoon we were all smoking our long, thin cigarettes on the porch until suddenly this egg-colored VW bus pulled up on the curb. Behind the wheel was a woman. Back then we would have called her a broad. She had muscles like a man and denim coveralls with the sleeves crudely cut off at the elbow.

Ladies and children, she called out her open window, I’ve got a one-way shuttle to Atlantic City. Climb aboard!

We laughed. Some of our children jumped for joy. We didn’t know who she was or what was happening, but we got on that bus. All four of us, with five toddlers between us. We gave her money for gas and we stopped for cool drinks and drove down to Atlantic City, smoking and hooting out the window. When one could begin to see sand on the shoulders of the highway, I felt a pulse in my wrist.

I met a man that afternoon, on the boardwalk. I dropped my purse and he picked it up and that’s how things used to happen. We walked together from one end to the other. He said he was a sailor but was dressed like a fisherman. We drank lime rickeys and ate raw oysters from a stand on a pier. I had never before eaten an oyster raw and I never would again. We did not make love under the boardwalk. We did not talk about husbands. We did not ask each other’s names. It was the only day I did not feel like the person I had left behind in my little village.

That was the feeling Miranda inspired in me. She was not a good person but she did good for me the day she told me her story. She reminded me of my old, slopping heart. I watched her leave to go and meet the drug dealer down the road. I caught a bus home. My face was flushed like a schoolgirl’s. I felt normal. Nobody can tell me that a better feeling exists in the world.

There came a soggy fall afternoon. The kind that feels stately, that even if you live in a not-beautiful place, the streets seem to glow with elegance. The leaves smelled dead in that very pungent way that is almost the opposite of death.

Miranda, by then, was moved out of the little cape and the rumor about town was that she was addicted to drugs and living in Newark, under the bridge. Luke had gotten full custody, but then Miranda had not even shown up at the court. It was only in the past few weeks that people said she’d started coming around again, but nobody knew for sure. She was like a ghost. Linda Valenti, who lived next door, said she saw Miranda come after suppertime. Luke only cracked the door, would not let her in, would not budge an inch. Linda said Miranda must have lost fifty pounds. She was a twig. Her big black hair was thin and looked gray. She was screaming about her child. Let me see my little girl, she hollered down the middle-class streets. Linda said the whole block could hear it, and that’s when another woman said she had, in fact, heard a wailing. It was terrible, someone else suddenly agreed. The sound of a mother who missed her blood. You could not feel nothing for someone who had made a terrible mis-take.

But it wasn’t until that damp afternoon that I saw her myself. The day she came to see Sol. She knocked on the door loudly, then softly. She did look sickly but she still had her breasts. Her neck was still thick. Her hair, in the dark fall light, was not gray but the same terrific licorice everyone always went on about.

He invited her in. She’d brought struffoli and a bottle of Cynar. They sat at the rosewood table in the dining room that was never used. Sol was very fat by this time. He was a doctor but an old one and old doctors were permitted to be fat. He was bald and pale but had an intelligent look to him, even when he was breathing heavily.

She told him the story, everything except she left out the drugs and the color of the man she went with. It was over between them. He hit her in the mouth with his ringed hand. She showed Sol the spot where the tooth was gone.

Sol leaned forward and held her face in his hand, surveying the damage. He said he had an oral surgeon friend who would fix it for her. Miranda was grateful. He poured them two glasses of Cynar and said he had not seen struffoli in forever.

After some time Miranda began to cry and said she missed her child. That there was a pit in her heart. She was wearing a burgundy romper. Her legs were still brown and big. Sicilian blood works like the sun, tanning the flesh from the inside out. She consoled herself that Caroline was better off without her. But still, in the middle of the night her breasts ached for the child. Her whole body. She didn’t have money to get her own place. She couldn’t get partial custody without her own place. Luke wouldn’t let her even see the kid, the way she was now. Penniless, drawn. She was sleeping at the house of a woman she knew, indeed under the bridge, and at night the noise was so bad, the train and the screams, and it smelled like the kind of piss that was not merely old but diseased. Not like in Italy, she said, where the piss smells beautiful. Sol smiled.

—You miss your kid, Sol said.

—So fucking much. I feel like not just my heart, but like my lungs are torn out.

She pulled at the skin between her chest viciously.

—Sorry, Sol.

He shook his head. She asked him what he thought.

—Let me tell you a story, Sol said. About a beautiful woman.

Miranda leaned forward. Beautiful women loved the stories of other beautiful women. They felt they could learn from them.

—When I was completing my residency in Padua, I did my homework every night in this little café. I drank espresso then switched to wine around seven and the owner would give me whatever pasta they had a surplus of. There was a waitress there. The most beautiful woman I had ever seen, with black hair that dipped down below her rear. Like yours, maybe even thicker. She was twenty-six, old to be unmarried in those days. I only watched her from afar for a long time. I was a busy young man, learning not only medicine but Italian at the same time.

—Forgive me, Sol, but why go to medical school in Italy if you don’t know Italian?

Besides being attractive she had that other quality that women like her had. They knew which questions to ask. They knew the right questions all the time.

—My family couldn’t afford medical school in the States. It was free in Italy back then, paid for by the government. All you had to do was practice at night in the hospitals. All night long, sometimes.

—That’s a lot of hard work to do.

—It was. Yes. Men these days don’t put the time in. You have to put the time in when you are young. And these days. Well, you know.

They both laughed, because Luke was a writer.

—When my last semester was over, I took her out. She was a very quiet woman. Of course we barely spoke the same language.

—Did you have her right away, the first night?

Sol smiled, the corned smile. All men have one, even the fattest and the kindest.

—No, he said. The second one. And he winked.

—Mind if I smoke? Miranda said.

Sol got up. His largeness, it was like a prehistoric bird. He picked up an ashtray from the Albergo Lungomare in Rimini and set it on the rosewood table that was polished to a high shine. There was a hole in one of the windows of the hotel the ashtray was from and one morning he’d woken to find a crow at the foot of the bed. Staring. The crow was larger than the hole in the window.

He took out a pack of cigarettes from the drawer of the armoire and lit her up with a 1930s Dunhill that had a deco swing arm.

—Beautiful, she said.

—Isn’t it.

—So how was it?

—It was wonderful, he said, but in that way men have where they aren’t thinking about the past. In prurient matters, men always live in the present. The past is just the fluffer. Of course in all other matters, sports and cars and presidents, men live in the past. I wish I could say I didn’t admire it.

He proceeded to tell her the rest of the story, the lame leg of it. How the beautiful waitress had a child, a two-year-old for whom she could barely provide. Sol was almost done with school by the time he’d taken her out. He was set to go back to the States. His grandmother had recently passed and left him a good chunk of money to start his own practice; perhaps there would be enough left over to buy a house. But he was Catholic, his mother was a hard, hard woman. She painted little girls inside seashells but never laughed or smiled. He could not bring over a bride with a child by another man. He could not.

Miranda sucked gluttonously on the cigarette. It was a Marlboro Red 100, left over from a stale soft pack.

—What happened?

—She came with me, he said. Before we left she set the child down, as it slept, inside the town chapel. Set it on the altar a few minutes before the mass would start. I gave her a roll of bills that she tucked inside the child’s blanket. We left for America. You know the rest.

—Jesus Christ, Miranda said. She drank down the rest of her Cynar.

—So you see, Sol said.

Miranda shook her head. Maybe she did, and maybe she didn’t. She crushed out the cigarette. When she was done Sol covered her hand with his own.

—You have a problem, Miranda. I see it. You’ve had a hard life. Don’t think I don’t understand.

She nodded her big head, her full head of hair.

—What can I do?

—What can any of us do? Sol said, looking deeply into her eyes. His hand was big and pale over hers. He didn’t see how badly hers wanted to get out from under his. I have always wondered how some men are able to avoid seeing such things. But like the crow in the hotel room that morning, Sol was able to make a kind of sense of it, one that fit the math in his own head. Me, I knew the crow for what it was. That was the night, after all, that I made my decision, in that hot room with the ocean across the street and the boys hollering at the girls in the gelateria.

Miranda started to cry. These were not the heaving tears I’d seen. These were the quiet, beautiful tears that beautiful women cry in front of unattractive men. They are not clear, these tears, but blue like sea glass. If you taste them you would find them salty and hard.

—I can help you, Miranda, Sol said. And his voice turned throaty, filled with wetness and trees. I mean, he said, that I can help you with money. Here and there.

He took her hand and brought it toward his giant legs. He wore huge and ghastly khaki shorts. The kind from the cheap department stores that men even older than himself shopped in. Pathetic, for a doctor, but of course after I was gone he had no one to shop for him. I had been unable to have any children. Everyone said it was a pity, and they didn’t even know the whole truth.

I can only see when the lights are on and the lights soon switched off, and I stopped looking in for some time. Even after you stop wanting to learn, there is yet a greater boredom you can feel with life. Boredom is perhaps not the right word but I don’t know the word in English. The last thing I saw were the struffoli on the table. He’d plated them in a bowl I brought from the apartment I shared with my child. It was the only thing I brought to this country, and I am, if you care to know, sad to leave it.

is the author of Three Women.
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April 2020