Photo by George Sheldon / Shutterstock.com
Here you are in a room in the Hotel Bologna on the periphery of a fantastic city. He has gone. Today, about his business – the conference, the lectures, the colleagues. The morning is yours. Cool shirt with sleeves to hide the impending scrotal-sac arms. Cotton trousers, loose and forgiving. Hair twisted up and secure so it doesn’t hang limp and damp and hot on your neck. Besides, long hair on a woman your age just looks silly. Really, you should cut it, but it’s all that’s left of the woman you once were. All that’s left of the woman he once loved. Water, money, map, guide book, camera. No hat – never a hat. You hate them. Through reception, dark and cool, a trim beautiful woman, girl really, in a navy suit and crisp white shirt which makes her young skin glow, calls Buon giorno, Signora from behind the desk. Out into a burst of light. Dodging the cars tearing up the Viale Stazione, you run up the steps into Mestre Station. Commuters, tourists, pizzas and coffee.
You queue behind the couple with Australian accents struggling with the biglietti self-service machine. You could help. But you don’t. In truth, he left you a long time ago. What did you do? What didn’t you do? Your turn. Choose English. Fish out Euros and drop them into the slot. Fair exchange. A ticket to the Emerald City. Run to the train. Minutes rocking on tracks across the brick and stone of Ponte della Libertà. You should have kept working. Now he looks at you and you feel it. His judgement. A parasite. But Christ Almighty you worked so hard. The kids, the moves, the countries, the cultures, the languages. You kept working, kept trying. You ran out of bluff. Over the flat sheet of the Venetian Lagoon. Carrying you away from the ordinary. Industry and function recede. Santa Lucia tips you out into the sun.
Into the Venetian Gothic.
Steps to the water-bus. Ferrovia to Rialto. Walk and lose yourself. Forget. Put away the map. Put away the guide book. When did they ever get you where you wanted to be? You followed all the rules and still you are lost. Forget. You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Certainly not in New Zealand. Auckland is a memory which no longer exists. The rainbow has been a hard climb. Too hard and too frightening to notice the colours. Life has brought you blindfolded far from endless, eternal days on the beach at Mission Bay, collecting empty Coca-Cola bottles for Tip Top ice-creams and meat pies. Forget he does not love you anymore. Forget you have wasted thirty years to end up with nothing except the intermittent panacea of five-day jaunts to European cities and hotel rooms which all look the same, feel the same, melding into one anonymous city of churches, museums, narrow streets. You fill up on exquisite chocolates and sinful pastries. No. Not a waste – the marriage gave you two glorious human beings who periodically bring you laughter and love. You’ve kept them ignorant of the desert that the once lush oasis of their parents’ marriage has become. They alone are worth every day of the thirty years. He cannot walk the alleyways with you. He does not want to walk the alleyways with you, unless they lead somewhere purposeful. He is bored and hot. Always tired, always hungry. He suffers the ‘must-do’ visits to palaces and galleries and crowded squares, thinking only of the hotel room. Sleek, cool, no fuss and shaded. The static breeze of the air-conditioning and the flat-screened television ‘perfectly placed’ opposite the bed. That is where he wants to be.
But Venice is different.
You want to be jostled among the crowds, jump on and off the water-buses, amble down alleyways, over footbridges, take a turn too many and get lost only to have the delight of finding your way back. Photograph a windowsill with a dozing cat among the profusion of cerise and crimson geraniums, a faded, peeling, drab-olive coloured wooden shutter, or the oily reflection of light on the water beneath a glossy black gondola down a narrow canal. You dodge the African migrants, legal or otherwise, selling Gucci and Prada handbags laid out on a cotton sheet and novelty toys, a danger to the children who buy them and deadly for the children who make them, clustered on the Rialto and Accademia bridges or pitched outside the fashion house shops in the narrow streets. The heat, the crowds, the bustle wears you down. You find a shaded café with bright red umbrellas in an anonymous piazza. The waiter treats you with deference and kindness. You want a cool beer but don’t trust yourself with the mix of alcohol, heat and sadness. He brings you an iced coffee and a bottle of over-priced water and you sit, the ice melting in a café freddo, and watch the world. A Japanese tour group straggles behind a lone stony-faced guide, her brilliant yellow furled umbrella hoisted high leading them across the city.
You move on.
Middle-aged travellers drag suitcases up and down the stepped bridges – no one at the travel agency mentioned that not only do you pay more for a hotel in the Venice of dreams proper but that you have to haul your luggage off the trains and vaporettos in the heat of summer. Mature visitors and couples with children pulling on their hands, foot weary and envious of the nomadic young with towering backpacks and worn clothes who scuttle and take the steps two at a time like wild goats, smiling as they go. Envious of the young who do not yet need tablets and heat packs, spare reading glasses, corn pads and anti-snoring strips. Who can’t imagine needing (do they even know?) lotions for the sun, after the sun, haemorrhoid creams, anti diarrhoea pills, anti-constipation syrups, or tea bags because they never have decent tea on the Continent.
You are delighted to find an exhibition of John Singer Sargent, of his Venetian years and works. His watercolours of the bridges and palazzos, the canals and people, pull you in. You don’t want to leave. You look and look and look again at each one until he calls and breaks the spell. His clinical sessions are done, meetings over. Where are you? You ask yourself the same thing every day. Thirty minutes. He says he’ll meet you outside the cathedral in the Piazza San Marco. Outside the exhibition, shrill American college kids swarm around you, boisterous and full of life with their name tag necklaces bearing the legend ‘Ambassadors to the World’. He takes forty minutes. Together you queue, you walk round, he takes photos, you whisper prayers and light candles even though you know no one, nothing is listening. You take him to the Guggenheim but the art leaves him cold. The only art he wants is the cool white ceramics of the sleek Italian bathroom with its soft brown tiles, walk-in shower, and crisp white towels waiting to be tossed in a damp huddle on the floor or across the bidet after washing away the heat, the sweat and the dust of your forced march through the city. You long to ride in a gondola, no matter how cheesy or expensive. But you agree with him, it’s a rip off and foolish. Back across the Liberty Bridge, back to the Hotel Bologna. He has been trying to show interest and commitment. Yesterday, he spent the whole day looking at the Biennale with you, contempt for most of the exhibits barely hidden in his eyes. You don’t understand most of it either but at certain levels something connects, reaches in, teasing you to look further, harder. He is a man for whom ‘what you see is what you get’ is a defining ethos. His life, his work, is about reality, obviousness, scientific proof. Even so, he endured, falling asleep afterwards, upright in the chair, at the outdoor café as you waited to order. You sat and smoked in silence, glaring at the small child at the next table as it screeched in defiance at its weary parents and so woke him from his slumber in the shade of the tree. He professed refreshment, eagerness to go on, to see more. He suggested the cathedral, despite the queues, but you said no, I’m tired, let’s go back to the hotel and have a rest. You could see the relief in his eyes as he asked “are you sure?” and, when you said yes, he promised a lovely meal in the evening, as if to make up for the afternoon cut short.
So today. Today, this time you made it to the cathedral.
Today, another late afternoon, retracing the hot steps of the morning in reverse order until with relief, yes even for you, you step into the clean open space of a refreshed room. One by one you shower. It is too many years to count since you last showered together. He pads barefoot over the comforting wooden floor to the bed where he sprawls on the bed, clothes off, splayed in his underpants like a beached whale, television remote cradled under one hand beside him and his cell phone ready for a chess game in the other. He is tired. He is always tired. His hours are long, twelve, fifteen hours a day. Patients hang on his words; their lives hang in his hands. The cancers, the fissures, the scars, the colostomies, the fears, the complications. He is bone weary all the time. Never takes a holiday, only tags on two or three days extra to the seminars, conferences, and meetings he attends throughout the year. Two days in a city and he’s been there and has an opinion. He is so very tired. You know that. You understand that. Nevertheless, does that mean your life too has to fold down into small hurried packages? Origami parcels of respite from the long lonely hours of waiting for his return at the end of the day. His phone repeatedly ringing, even as he climbs out of his car or walks through the door or sits down to eat before you can even ask, how was your day? Intruding and allowing no time for the natural course of conversation. You lay down the meal, prepared and warmed so he doesn’t have to wait as he probably hasn’t eaten all day. He eats and finishes before you’ve barely sat down to join him and leaves the table. Leaves you to sit there eating, staring at your own reflection in the kitchen window. He is so tired and goes to assume the position (now a family catchphrase) on the sofa, shoes kicked off, in front of the flat screen television, in the air-conditioning. By the time you clear away and walk in he is dozing, the television control snugly between his hand and heart so that you can’t even switch the channels. You smoke and wait, then leave him. Go outside to cuddle the dogs, to read, to look at the stars. You go to bed. Nowadays you never stir when he finally comes upstairs at two or three in the morning. These days away are for you as well as him but somehow never for you both together. This hotel room is your springboard to sights, sounds and smells. This room is his safety net, his escape from the crush and babble. Maybe he regrets telling you he no longer loves you. He forgets that he also said that you are too fat. It puts me off. You slip into pale blue and white seersucker pyjamas and lie on the pristine bed beside him, letting the gentle zephyr of mechanical air carry away the tiredness from your middle-aged bodies and breathe life back into tired bones and feet. The gauzy curtains screen out the harsh summer sun and you both fall asleep. When you wake the day is dimming and you feel a little cold. You turn your head to look at him and he is lying there staring at you. Neither of you speak. Was I snoring, you think, had my mouth fallen open like a deathly skull? It still matters to you how he sees you. He blinks and reaches over with his arm and draws you to him. You have always loved, been thrilled by, his arms and hands, strong, beautifully shaped and so masculine. They used to make you feel safe. You move into his embrace. I was wrong, he says quietly. I still love you. Your bodies shift together, folding into a nearly but not quite forgotten pattern. Your face nuzzles his chest, as the familiar warmth of his body comforts yours. I love this city, you think. I love this room. I love this man.
Together you both drift back to sleep.
Shannon Savvas is a New Zealand writer whose Irish mother brought a particular set of challenges. A nomad since childhood, she struggles still to find where she belongs and to understand who she is. She now divides her life between New Zealand, England and Cyprus. 2022: Winner: Fish Short Story Prize; 2020: Pushcart nominated; 2019: Winner: Cuirt New Writing Prize; Flash500; 2017: Winner: Reflex Fiction. Find her on Twitter or Instagram or visit her website.