Birthdays feed on ghosts. Sifting through an antique chest I come upon the 86-page manuscript of a play written by the woman I was once married to. She sent it to my Monte Carlo office in April 1994. The pages are held together by an aging clip that snaps at the touch. I collect the pages from the floor and remember that she once asked for a critique: “I really value your opinion,” she said.
“Ostrich,” the play was called, and I’d seen a rough draft when we first met in Rome a year earlier, in 1993. At the time, she had a Sicilian boyfriend and a neatly furnished apartment near the Pantheon.
She was a Leo — August 16, 1966 — and last month marked her 40th birthday. The birthday, and the woman, is lost to time. For the record I am 53 and some astrologers claim that remembrance is the cancer of Cancers. The assertion seems reasonable.
“Ostrich” was finished, or very nearly, when it arrived in Monte Carlo 12 years ago — “Fourth Draft,” it read: “A drama in two acts,” “the play is set in the present,” in Los Angeles. The characters are Sarah, a woman in her early 20s; her sister Valerie in her mid-20s; Valerie’s fiancé Tom, and Giuseppe (Joe) Fiori, described as “an Italian-American businessman, early 50s.”
The manuscript contains my unremarkable scrawls. “Repeats theme,” says one. The word “Yes!” — the exclamation point shoots off the page — flanks a passage that concludes: “Get angry, I deserve it. I really do. What do you feel? Show me, please show me.”
Time has dulled her words and my reactions. I recall “Ostrich” as a tequila-shot take on parental loss and the friction between sisters. Mementoes is spelled “momentos”; Absolut Vodka is “absolute.” On page seven Val has lunch with businessman Joe at the “really expensive Northern Italian restaurant” near the apartment the sisters share: “The one we walk by the windows of and wish! Wish we could afford it,” she tells Sarah. “This what my life should be about.”
Later, Val chides Sarah: “Games are for little girls. I don’t play games. Rise and shine, Sarah. Let me introduce you to your sister, Valerie Darrells, the woman who will get what she wants out of life.”
Val’s cruel streak eats her alive.
It’s no surprise I picked her creator. Many men do what’s worst for them and memorize the protocol. Our partnership lasted six weeks.
She imagined herself writing scripts, plays, and movies. Success, she insisted, would come on her own terms. Maybe it did.
We married in the Mark Hotel on New York City’s East Side on July 16, 1994 after a courtship that began with a proposal sent via fax and included visits to Monte Carlo, New York, Atlanta, and Chicago. I paid the bills. She arrived in Monaco on September 6, 1994 — to a 14th floor luxury apartment with terraces that overlooked the Casino and the Loews Hotel and ran $4,500 a month; she’d picked it. I agreed. A month later she was gone, Nice to Paris to Chicago, the return ticket and a $15,000 banker’s check part of a separation settlement negotiated by a New York lawyer called Sexter. The union wasn’t consummated, he said — I was seriously ill on my wedding night and had to fly to Lisbon the next day. He forged an annulment that took four years to complete.
After the separation (I had moved to London) I heard from her father, a military history buff named Marv who lived in Florida and had attended the boozy Manhattan wedding. In a November 1995 letter he said she was traveling in Italy; he’d received a card. In 1999 he wrote saying she’d been hospitalized in intensive care for 40 days. Forty, he repeated ominously. He did not elaborate. I replied with awkward wishes. A few months later he told me she’d improved. I never heard from him again.
Romantic arithmetic is based on bias. It includes the delightful and the mean. Her math, the early math of our strange engagement, involved adding my age, 41, to hers, 27, and through a secret formula deducing a sum that ensured we were the perfect match — a hopeful equation intended to give quantity to contentment.
In “Ostrich,” Joe, the Italian-American businessman, falls hard for Val. But her mind is elsewhere. She misses her mother and her father and lashes out. “I hurt everyone,” she tells Joe, “that’s one of the hazards of knowing me… you take your chances. Why’d you do it?”
Joe, his head planted in romantic sand, has no answer.
Nor do I.
The ads came first: singing telegrams, juggling, clown acts. There were five in all.
I founded the magazine called Metropolitan in early 1992. It emerged from a project called Open City, first conceived as a free English-language weekly for Rome. But funding was unavailable and the undertaking foundered. By chance, I met an Italian who was interested in reviving the Rome Daily American newspaper that had gone out of business in 1984. We ultimately agreed that a daily was too ambitious and settled on a free biweekly, which he wanted to call CNN — City and Nation. The CNN idea, harebrained at best, yielded a compromise: Metropolitan. We began operation in March 1992 with a staff of five and offices located on Largo Argentina, in central Rome. At the time, free publications were unheard of Italy — your cost equaled your worth — and the magazine struggled take off. We then added free personal ads. Business boomed.
I have no idea when she brought the ads, though later said she did so in person. Our system was primitive: you mailed or faxed in the text, which was then typed onto a disk — haphazard grammar included — and delivered to our egregiously overworked page designer.
One day, peering over his shoulder at the bulky Macintosh screen (we were pioneers, in a sense, doing our own impagination) the ads caught my attention. The entertainments, I noticed, were offered by one person, a woman, and in Rome. Then as now the city is guarded. Women do not as a rule offer to sing telegrams. The whimsy appealed to me.
In June 1992 I turned 39, but my publisher, whose own math was problematic (the magazine folded in 1995), mistook the birthday for my 40th and penned a florid letter about passages. “Life,” he wrote in Italian, “is difficult because it contains husks and kernels of surprise that we cannot recognize until we obtain the maturity necessary to harvest the grains of wisdom.” His similies eluded me, but then again I was not yet 40. In place of maturity I sought to lure the singing clown. But how?
I chose ruse. I’d call the singer on a pretext: since one person offered all the services why not arrange them sequentially, in a highlighted box? It seemed benign and honest.
The worst the clown could do was agree or decline and be done with me. But she wasn’t. She laughed. Women laugh at their own risk. The sound cast spells.
Of course she wouldn’t mind. Arranging the ads was a good idea. Thank you, she said.
Why did she sing and play the clown?
Money, she answered. She was an American girl from Chicago trying to make ends meet in Rome.
Could I meet her? Simple curiosity, I said.
Yes, of course.
At the Pantheon? Coffee or dinner? More laughter.
Coffee, she said. We were light and polite.
Green eyes. Like my mother’s. The get-acquainted session began with eyes. Near the Pantheon, at a café, in the late afternoon of a summer day in 1992.
She wasn’t shy with her life story.
Chicago, the wrong side; college, none; ambition, a play in progress, and acting; oh yes, a sister, in South Korea.
Could she help? Could she proofread? Could she give me her play to read?
Then the laugh, stage-trained… and oh, getting late… she had to go.
Stefano, her Sicilian boyfriend. He was waiting.
This silenced me. But I played the rebound. I wasn’t done.
Yes, I said, Italian men.
Yes, she said, jealous, possessive.
I hid my disappointment in a smile; boys, mollusks with their emotions.
So, could she come by the office?
Yes, I said, and we parted.
Val taunts Tom. She calls him “passionless actor.” You don’t have what it takes, she says, and points to her heart. Tom’s impassivity makes Val’s rage: “Yell at me!! Scream!! Punch a wall!! Jesus Christ! What does it take to get you to react??!!”
At that point I wrote, “repeats theme.” In retrospect, that was her intent.
She did come by the office, stopping traffic.
The sultry laugh and what it did to her eyes, which rolled upward: I remember her in a back room, studiously examining page proofs even though she couldn’t spell.
More coffee sessions followed. We’d discuss the play or Italy. Or her past.
In Chicago, she’d lived with a drug addict; he’d beaten her. She’d tried to fix him, failed, and left. Stefano was different, kind and attentive. But he also was boyish, two years younger; 24. She missed the notion of a more adult man. Still, she might marry him. But his mother: so dominant.
Marry him and you marry his family, I told her.
“Why are Italian men so set in their ways?” she asked.
Long story, I replied, and another afternoon played out.
Gradually, I steered further into harm’s way. I’d love to meet Stefano, I said. And he appeared one day at the end of a chat, a stunningly pretty boy. He was — I told her after — sweet.
Too sweet, she said.
That night, Stefano cooked pasta and I left early, grazing his cheeks but not hers. Not in front of him.
One evening, the magazine’s designer saw her on a bus. She was off to a dinner. “Wow,” he said.
“Don’t even think about it,” came a voice that wasn’t mine, and yet it was.
And the time had come.
I like you too much, I told her over coffee.
I’m sorry, she said.
No, I’m sorry, I said.
Can we stay friends, she said.
I’ll finish with the play, I answered. But after that I really shouldn’t see you.
I’m sorry, she said again. We drank up. And she was gone.
We were into autumn, or nearly. I wouldn’t hear from her again for 18 months. By then, I was 40, far too old to play games. Nonsense.
Primo Nebiolo reveled in showmanship. The day I formalized my contract as press spokesman of the International Amateur Athletic Federation — track and field’s governing body — he wore an azure shirt with a starched white collar and gold cufflinks. We met in the Loews Hotel lobby, a prodigal haunt that honored his close ties to Monaco’s royal family, particularly Prince Albert, an Amherst-trained sportsman attracted to strongmen. A Napoleonic figure most at ease among lawyers and saucer-eyed lackeys, Nebiolo manipulated luxury to cow doubters, or to buy them. Gratitude concealed contempt. White-gloved waiters poured sugarcane caipiriñhas to celebrate sealed deals. Suites adjoining Nebiolo’s morphed into elegant war-rooms in which he dictated his desires, first patiently, then less so.
Nebiolo had summoned me to Monaco through his chief of staff. “The president wants to see you,” said the aide, my friend, by phone. I’d been introduced to Nebiolo in Rome the previous autumn in his Travertine lair on Via Bocca di Leone across the street from the Hotel Inghilterra. There, in fiercely accented English (“happy” sounded like “‘appy”) he outlined his Monte Carlo project: stylish offices near the port and an opulently remodeled villa that would serve as his headquarters. He sounded and behaved like a miniature king breathlessly in love with his realm, a megalomaniacal force of nature untainted by the plebian restraints of modesty. In his mid-60s, from the Piedmont, Nebiolo cared supremely about his organization and his image. Along with Catalan Spaniard Antonio Samaranch, president of the IOC, and Jose Havalange, the curved Brazilian patrician who managed FIFA, Nebiolo dictated the forward motion of a multibillion dollar global sports infrastructure.
Nebiolo’s invitation found me in Washington, trawling for twigs. I’d left Metropolitan before Christmas 1992, six months after I started it, to help my sick aunt, alone in Brooklyn with an ulcerous tumor. I buried her short of her 90th birthday in March 1993. The rest of the year, including my actual 40th birthday, soured into depression. No wheat; no wisdom. I made despair into a travel fad, flying to New York on Christmas Day 1993 only to return to Rome on New Year’s Eve — two holidays aloft in dark tubes. The low-budget ping-pong continued until the Monaco call.
A month after I signed on — the one-year contract called for a starting salary of $70,000, a huge sum for me, and business class travel — I rented my Rome apartment and moved to Monte Carlo. I touched down in Nice and boarded a helicopter that ladled forward for 20 minutes along the foggy French coast. The hotel, then known as the Abela (now a luxury village), abutted the heliport. I marked the date: March 26, 1994.
The woman I was to marry hadn’t occurred to me in months. She, and Rome, belonged to the past. The chaff, all of it, had blown itself out. Or so I hoped.
The Italian postal system is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, all of which a clerk misplaces. Tales of woe were legion. Important packages arrived at tramp steamer speed. Holiday postcards grew moss. Beach greetings trickled in by autumn, Christmas cards by mid-January. Veteran expatriates sent vital correspondence only through the Vatican post office, which ostensibly bypassed state sorting stations (some in the south) and delivered outgoing mail directly to the Rome airport.
Incoming mail, however, had no spiritual escort. This is why a card sent in mid-December reached me only in late March. True, it landed first at my Rome apartment, by then rented to a married socialist tycoon who had promptly installed his 21-year-old mistress in my bedroom (as well as a ceiling-mounted video camera to record their amusements). He moved in on March 1, the day my belongings went into pre-Monte Carlo storage. After accepting Nebiolo’s offer I’d returned to the United States and taken a brief vacation in Puerto Rico, where I pondered the days ahead.
My first week on the job I flew to Budapest for the world cross country championships. Journalists on deadline, my own tribe, poked and prodded me for scraps of information about a sport whose rudiments I hadn’t yet grasped. Ian Thompson, then a writer for the International Herald Tribune, helped me through a trying few days. I had never been on the other side, charged with limiting, as well as seeking, information.
The scope of Nebiolo’s controversial personality also emerged: as adored as he was by some in the Italian press he was deeply mistrusted by the British, who disliked his imperial pretenses while quietly envying his power (presaging the bipolar loathing Silvio Berlusconi would face five years later).
I returned to Monte Carlo in shock. This would not be an easy job.
The wandering card, finally in my hands, soothed anxiety.
In truth, it did far more, though it had no actual claim to such power.
Hello, she said. I’m in Chicago. I left Stefano. I’m taking film. I’m bar tending. I’m still writing the play. I hope you’re well. Take care.
Then, “I miss you.”
I read it again.
Love, more assured, is outclassed by longing. Saying you miss someone is subversive, a call to arms. It reeks of sensuous conspiracy.
I carried the line into the night, and answered.
Me, too, I said to myself. Me too.
NOSTALGIA’S GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT is persuading the world that it’s true. Mostly, it’s not.
There was no “I miss you.”
Beside the play are her letters and faxes — not all but a few. While the first note contains all I imagined it did: film, Chicago, new life, nowhere does it pine. I fulfilled my own longing.
I did answer her, however. And we spoke at length — I called. There was no email.
A week later she wrote, gushing:
“First of all CONGRATULATIONS, CONGRATULATIONS, CONGRATULATIONS…” Then: “I am absolutely thrilled for you. If someone where to say what a dream job should entail it would be everything you have. I can’t think of a more deserving person and I hope you have the time of your life. Ok, enough of that. My God, Monte Carlo, Nintie thousand tax free dollars, an all expense paid life, travel!…. Ok, I said I was going to shut up. So, how’s the weather.”
Seventy had turned into ninety. Her relationship to spelling was unchanged.
She had changed her hair, to auburn (“don’t gasp in horror or anything, it’s nothing drastic…”), her dog Daisy was flea-free (“what a relief”), the bar that employed her part-time was called “Drink” (“pretty profound, huh?”), and she’d been cast in two plays, including one called “Peace not War” in which she played a civil rights attorney whose mother “blows off my wedding causing a major rift within the family.”
Wedding. The word stuck.
For some men, marriage is about solving solitude and owning enlargement. It is not a choice but a solution, a project of sorts. But a solution is also a terminus. The riddle of commitment skirts around the side of human longing that privately disowns loyalty.
I knew nothing of projects, let alone commitment, so I bought roses, dozens of them, and gladly chose infatuation as a full-time undertaking. The rose heaps flew so fast I couldn’t keep up with my orders. I was offered “preferred” status at 1-800-FLOWERS. I had neither the time or the inclination to consider that the flowers might be a lopsided solution to solitude. My romance project was relentless and self-involved.
And I became aware.
“How could you ever even think that sending me flowers is a ‘bombardment’ is beyond me,” she wrote in a fax dated May 13, obviously in answer to something I had written. “I love them and they make me happy. Please don’t promise never to send them again.”
She wanted to take a four-week intensive film class at NYU in the summer. “School starts at nine in the morning and doesn’t stop until ten that night — six days a week. Sounds like heaven to me.”
What if? Fancy, not logic, came first: The rest toppled forward. We’d had 20 coffees in Rome, a hiatus, and now this sudden ripe exchange of letters, faxes, and phone calls that lasted — a few of them — for hours. What if? What if the next move was unconventional, lifted from a catalogue only I could see? What if and what then? I walked by evening along the edges of the port, up and down the narrow slips, by cafés and into shops where bakeries began trimmed bread from their shelves, leaving skiffs of light powder you could write your name in. My father had died in 1974, my mother in 1988, my aunt in 1993. I had burned through love affairs like a condemned man seeking not companionship but solace. I spent acres of time alone among books and words, courting a future in the abstract. My selfishness took the form of selflessness, fooling all but the most astute observer — and once they knew they walked away. Afraid of water, I lived in a flooded house.
I visited the printer, a delicate man of about 65 named Birout. Birout, with a forehead the size of Texas, told stories: his father Ernesto was born in Trieste and migrated, crab-like, to the Cote d’Azure in the late 1940s. His father’s company began printing catalogues and brochures and gradually won lucrative contracts from the principality. His walls had photographs of Grace Kelley, the princess, and of decades of snout-nosed racing cars that rushed along the seaside boulevards in the annual Formula One race. Outside, beyond the bakeries, workers were busy erecting stands in final preparations for the 1994 race. The brilliant Brazilian Ayrton Senna, and another driver, had just been killed in a crash. We spoke of it.
“C’est beaucoup dommage, Senna,” said Birout, among the few aware of my war of the roses.
Yes, I said. Shocking. Senna was an immortal.
How about the rose girl? he asked.
Je veux l’épouse.
Slowly, he said. Meet her again first. Go to America. You have not held hands, you have not kissed, you have not been two.
But I didn’t listen. Instead, I dined alone — pea soup and ham — and returned to the office well after nightfall. Only the besieged doping chief, a gentle Belgian, was still around, circling documents under neon light like a high school teacher grading papers. I greeted him and went upstairs where I sat still in my dark office. I eventually sent the fax from there. It declared a number of things I don’t remember clearly. I do remember the salient part.
I then sat down and took a deep breath.
At the time, I was reading wonderful baseball book by Pat Jordan called “A False Spring.” Jordan, a major high school prospect in the late 1950s, flopped with Milwaukee in the big leagues. Still, he tasted something he liked, and never forgot it. “A few years after I left baseball,” wrote Jordan, “ I picked up a newspaper to read that Warren Spahn and Phil Roof, a rookie catcher, had been arrested in the early morning hours in a Milwaukee bar. Spahn was 41 and his drinking companion was 23. I was 23 at the time. I had a wife and three children. I was working the night shift at a local newspaper while attending college during the day, and on reading the article felt a certain loss. I should have been with Spahn in that bar.”
I didn’t drink but I felt as though I understood him intimately.
I found her one-page fax on my desk the next morning with the notation “CW?” It had no cover sheet and did not contain my name.
Nor did it say “yes.”
Instead, it said “When?”
THERE’S NO SHAME IN ACTING OUT A CHEAPLY-MADE MOVIE. She had the looks but I didn’t. Nor could I memorize a script. Long flights settle into the eyes, making them dopey. After a while you’re literally beside yourself, tapping away at a hollow eggshell.
I timed my first visit to coincide with a New York track meet in late May. I booked a double room at the Sherry-Netherland, an old and distinguished midtown luxury hotel, and flew her in from Chicago. Her flight arrived hours after mine and I met her in the concourse of La Guardia Airport.
I saw her first from an upper esplanade, lithely sliding toward an exit. Auburn hair is what I saw first, and leap-year cheekbones, so sudden and very high, what you perched a smile on for maximum reach. Our very long first kiss, not a word spoken, ignored the tentative. Nothing that occurred in those first seconds was awkward. Myth-makers from different galaxies, wide-eyed, we convinced our moment into action. Maturity, I thought later, was something different: a kind of learned squinting.
No one makes love in “Ostrich.” It’s a play, of course, but that’s incidental. Wrath, not seduction, is Val’s strength. “The amazing Valerie Darrells and her ravenous appetite for life,” she tells herself after too much “absolute” and vodka, “watch out, she’ll such you dry.” She takes what she needs and gives what she can. I liked that line.
The dinner and the bed, turned down, like a 1950s liner. She shuddered, naked, but at dinner, in my mind’s eye. Lingering over cordials, the bittersweet taste carried into the night. The trepidation of her body was planned, out of shyness maybe. So much about shared skin got tangled in elbows. OK, she said finally, and shuddered. I never heard my name, to know who I was. I spoke hers aloud, to reassure myself. OK, she said again. But it wasn’t. Not really. Sacks of coal in a perfect bed.
There was no wakeup call, not the morning after or the one after that. We dined with my work friends at Cipriani; dressed in black, slightly drunk, she awed them. “Oy,” said one Italian. He patted my waist. She flirted too much that night, and when it was over, bumbling for cabs, the eldest of the Italians — Giacomo, late 50s, a decent man — said four words: Ma sei proprio sicuro? Drunk probably.
The next day I worked, and she walked and shopped. She bought me clothes, hundreds of dollars worth; I found them spread out on the bed: shirts, pants, undershirts. Thank you, I said. Thank you. A walk up Fifth Avenue toward the upper seventies and eighties, New York’s high rent district. There, sunglasses: $150. OK, I say. There also the Mark Hotel. We took brochures.
I’d love it if I could do the NYU film class. Love it! That word again. We went to the school and I wrote out a check for $5,500. Recently, a woman named Amy Sutherland wrote an essay about marriage. She had trained her husband, she said. “You can’t expect a baboon to learn to flip on command in one session, just as you can’t expect an American husband to begin regularly picking up his dirty socks by praising him once for picking up a single sock. With the baboon you first reward the hop, then a bigger hop, then an even bigger hop.”
MY FORMATIVE YEARS, I told the prince, came during feminism. No one burned bras in my presence but nor did they make a production out of competing for men. In general, they slept with what they liked if they felt like it and then did or did not move on, depending on affection and circumstance. Faced with this borrowed Alpha approach, men turned more passive, alert to what might happen, perched on the fence of a seduction over which they felt they had little control.
Not the world now, said the prince, and I agreed.
We met in June for lunch in a restaurant he chose, modest and open-ended. Security consisted of a broad-shouldered man at the door who yawned from time to time. Monte Carlo, said the prince, is not Washington. Fortunately.
How we broached the subject of love and relationships isn’t entirely clear. Maybe I brought it up. Maybe I told him: I’m getting married soon.
The prince, charming, had an upscale frat-boy side, intelligent, demure, idiomatic. He seemed like what he was: an American prince. One of a kind, manufactured for export to a principality half-French, half-Hollywood legend, with yachts, gambling, and debauchery tossed in to further amuse the gods.
If you’re getting married, said the prince, why not do it here? I can fix it up.
I remember that line: fix it up. Like a linoleum floor in a kitchen, but with care: pieces of tiles cut to size and fitted into corners. I liked the prince.
What was it like being him? I asked only somewhat disingenuously as the lunch churned pleasantly into the casual. “Oh, you know, I’ll tell you,” the prince replied, “I just wouldn’t like to be in my sister’s shoes. I mean, what they have to go through.”
His sisters were called Stephanie and Caroline. Now married with children and Monte Carlo’s middle-aged boss, he’s very much in their one-time celebrity shoes. But then he was a 30-something royal kid offering to help with a 40-something kid’s first marriage. “Let me know,” he said. I never did.
Now, 12 years later, he’s a veteran: he runs the principality and has two children out of wedlock.
Monte Carlo, she told me, was out of the question. Too pretentious. Who needed princes? We’d settled on the Mark Hotel and on the date, July 16.
She wanted no special religious presence so we obtained a civil license on Staten Island. A female minister who belonged to the American Ethical Union would speak briefly in praise of harmony and marry us. The guest list was limited: about 20 in all — her father paid for the reception. We also agreed she’d move at my expense to New York for the film course, rent an apartment, and transfer to Monaco at the end of the summer, with Daisy in tow.
Something was missing but I didn’t know what.
FLASHBACKS ARE A MISNOMER. Illumination doesn’t facilitate memory. Early film directors distorted the screen when characters tried to remember their childhood in crime. “It’s a blur, officer,” the line went. Recollection is an allegation of the real, a guided tour of maybes and unwishful thinking.
The letters and faxes I still have (the ones that haven’t whitened) end in June and pick up again only in late August. What happened in between, including the wedding, is inexact. I politely refused wedding photographs taken by my friends.
The June- September stretch is a book of vague landscapes.
— In New York among my friends. They’re prodding her, as friends do. She flirts and smiles and plies men for contacts. I’m a shield against petty jealousies. A woman friend bludgeons Woody Allen; it’s the time of the Mia Farrow betrayal. I introduce diplomacy. Infuriated, as the women say I’m siding with “that sleaze.” My girlfriend of a decade before, now married, pulls her aside. He’s emotionally immature, she murmurs. She never forgets the remark.
— In Atlanta to scout the track and field venues for the 1996 Olympics, I book a room at the Peachtree Plaza Hotel. She has film school tapes and rents two VCRs. I return to find scraps of lunch and two crystal flute glasses vibrating emptily atop the television. She’s happy, tipsy. Are you mad at me? You don’t have to marry me. I instinctively throw up a palm: no, please.
— In Chicago, in her apartment, lying on bed, propped against dessicated walls under a barred window. I’ve flown in to surprise her on the opening night of a play in which she has the lead. We meet her mother, who slurs her speech and pitches her drink forward, a wavy lisp of light landing on my shoe. We leave. Afterword, she stabs her compact through south Chicago traffic: “I told you about my mother. Are you OK with it?” Yes, I say, yes. In her bed, she averts my caress. The play hasn’t gone as planned. She’s annoyed. But we’re engaged, I remind her. I’m tired, she replies vacantly. We’ll have a lifetime to get close, but now now.
— In Monte Carlo, by the pool at the Abela, three beige bathrobes draped on lawn chairs, papers pinned down by dishes. It’s just past my June birthday and I’ve flown her in from Chicago. She tans, unhurriedly picking from creams in delta-shaped bottles with French names like “Lotion Le Brise.” Your friend is outside, says the concierge. I need you to sign for her lunch. She sees me, smiles, and slips her sunglasses to the edge of her nose. I lean in to kiss her. Not here, she says. Please. Why? Not here. Why? I don’t feel like it. Later. I walk to a pier and buy my cigarettes. I want the bitterness of nicotine.
Then, as we wander near the port, she changes the subject. Can we adopt her niece? Can we consider it? I’d met the niece in Chicago, a tough and tender kid of seven, the worn out child of an alcoholic aunt. Maybe, I say. Maybe. Let’s give it a little time. We could get a nanny, she says. We walk though a park to a knoll above the port. I again try to kiss her. Don’t. Then, “You don’t own me.”
In another letter, this one after it ended, her sister writes to me from South Korea:
“My hearts goes out to you. I don’t mean to be disloyal to my older sister, but nor will I be disloyal to myself by denying what’s obvious. I suppose it’s easy to say (after the fact) ‘I knew it all along.’ But in this case I believe I did. Perhaps it was cowardly of me not to say something… to ask her why. Perhaps I knew it would do no good and rationalized that we each had our own lives to conduct. Truth is, I didn’t bother.”
The sister, a pretty petite brunette, attends the wedding. She shares our three-bedroom suite at the Baglioni Grand.
You don’t mind? My baby sister? We have the space.
No, of course not, I whisper.
I arrive from Paris on a Thursday; the wedding is Saturday. I must leave Monday night for the world junior championships in Lisbon. Nebiolo is adamant. Hours before the hotel ceremony my head aches. By late afternoon my throat has a big white pinwheels. When I say “I do” — I do say it, though after that I remember little — my fever is 104. Beautiful, she holds a white bouquet. After the raucous party, I collapse in bed where a hotel doctor, an Austrian with a fat nose, diagnoses acute tonsillitis. I sleep alone.
My new wife and sister-in law appear late the next morning, Sunday, I grapple with delirium. Someone brews me tea.
Can the two of them go sightseeing.
I nod and they’re gone.
That night, the club-hop, returning deep at night. I hear tittering.
On Monday, my fever breaks and I compose myself.
Don’t make me sick, laughs my wife, who sidesteps a kiss.
I understand, I say. I take a cab to JFK and board a TWA flight for Lisbon.
How was your weekend, asks a jovial flight attendant. I got married, I say. She brings me champagne. I grin like a well-trained exotic animal.
ARE YOU APPY? PRIMO NEBIOLO asked me. Nebiolo could be boorishly sentimental, an endearing trait. He died in 1999. “What worried me,” he said in Italian over cocktails in Monte Carlo, “was that you’d always be alone.” Cosi solo non va… Married but childless. Nebiolo depended on his wife Giovanna to center him. Without her he lacked a limb.
I’m happy, I told him. I’m happy I told myself.
In early August her New York landlord called: he hadn’t received the July rent. I sent a check.
Citibank followed: did I wish to report credit card theft? The card was my wife’s in New York, I explained. Yes, they said, but they’d stopped payment: too many cash advances in too short a time.
We fought. She wanted her car shipped from Chicago (“It needs to be paid for in full either by a personal check or certified check.”) I said no. You’re earning enough, she said.
On August 29, a week before her arrival, I received a peace offering: a fax signed with her name and my surname and a wedding photograph. But the fax machine of the time was color blind and I got only a black stain. “I’m so sorry things simmered under the surface for you for so long but hopefully, now that the air is cleared we can really begin to work everything out. I am positive when I get there things will be a different story.” The last line read: “Here is the routing number for the bank…” I’ve forgotten the reason for the transfer.
On September 12 she arrived in Nice with only hand baggage.
That night, in the hotel dining room, at a candle-lit table, the tear opened into a gash. A waiter circled around us as if we reeked of sulfur.
I began: Her self-indulgence was intolerable. Parsimony wasn’t necessary, but good sense was. I spoke of limits.
The limits she answered, were my stinginess, selfishness, and lack of compassion. You get only first marriage, she said. I’d ruined hers.
Why even be married then?
She asked herself that question, she said. But obviously I had already decided.
A rehearsed leer leaked into her smile. I felt as if I’d lifted a pencil to make a point and thrust the tip into my eye. The effect was sickly whoosh.
Do you love me? Spoke the whoosh.
I don’t know anymore, she said. I told you a hundred times you didn’t have to marry me — “Ostrich” Val, front and center: “You take your chances. Why’d you do it?”
Enough, I said, and stood clumsily, losing my footing. Most anger borders on parody.
Fine, she said. If you don’t want to be married to me that’s fine.
Fine. I said tamely.
Except…its’ not that easy. You owe me, she said. He voice was hypnotically bruising as if delivering irrefutable proof.
We spend the night in separate rooms and the next day, not speaking, moved into the 14th floor flat. She took the smaller of the two bedrooms.
Her elbows on the terrace railing above the vast soft sea, she spoke to me in a monotone. She’d expected this outcome, she said. She had a lawyer in Denver who’d been briefed on the separation terms. If I had proposals I could get in touch with him.
You have to pay for the damage you’ve caused me, she said.
For the next month we saw each other rarely. When she was present she locked her door. I found my own lawyer and he opened negations with his Denver counterpart. We did dine once, a pizza in an empty restaurant, the mongoose and the cobra. “Why can’t we be friends,” she asked. “It’s not like I hate you.”
Nothing changed. We returned to our separate underbrush.
After the settlement we traveled silently together by commuter train to the U.S. Consulate in Nice where a young official notarized the document. I handed him her return ticket to the U.S. and a $15,000 bankers check, the sum we had agreed on. Nervous, the man fumbled the check, letting it float awkwardly to the floor, before handing it to her.
She vanished when we returned to Monaco. My work colleagues claimed they saw her in local nightclubs. She slept elsewhere. After two days I filed a missing persons report, which amused the jaded Monte Carlo police. Anything short of murder put them to sleep. “What do you care where she is?” asked a glowering sergeant, pushing back a stained duck-brimmed had with a bit thumb. “You are now… separated, no? Not your responsibility.”
Her belongings lay untouched for a week, strewn around the room. On her open laptop, I found a narrative about a pathetic husband beset with emotional and sexual inadequacies. I read them as a biologist might study slides and hammered a fist on her laptop computer. I then changed the locks and gave the doorman the key, instructing him to escort her upstairs to collect her belongings.
The next morning, October 11, she called. She’d picked up her things, she said. The rest was invective.
And she was gone.
On October 15, I received a final fax from Chicago. It read, in part: “You are guiltless and gutless, the essence of a poltroon. I would say you are spineless wimp but I think conniving bitch suits you so much better.”
She promised sarcastically to send “updates” on the book whose pages I’d found in her room “just to show I don’t hold a grudge.” When it was published, she concluded, I’ll even sign a copy and send it to you. “Hate,” says the French writer Philippe Claudel, “is a cruel marinade; it gives meat the flavor of trash.”
Nothing ever followed.
But my mother’s jewelry, which I kept too casually in my bedroom, was missing. I discovered registered mail slips in a closet. She’d sent several packages back to Chicago.
Later, her father urged her to return the heirlooms. “I am crying inside,” he wrote to her. The effort was futile.
“I make myself understood when I need to,” Val tells her sister in “Ostrich.” “As for the rest of the time, I really don’t care. Anyway, I don’t know why you all have such a hard time. I certainly don’t hide what I’m thinking. I should think it would be easy to figure me out.”
I READ A LOT THESE DAYS.
The Belgian writer Amèlie Nothomb, who is 39, born August 13, writes of “Never” a vast invented country in her Asian childhood. “The Neverians,” she explains, “are great builders of love, friendship, writing and other agonizing constructions which contain their own ruin, but they are incapable of building a house, a dwelling, or anything like a stable, inhabitable residence.”
They know so much they turn gradually passive, then resigned.
I lay down the book and return to the manuscript and letters to the chest.
— This piece first appeared in September 2007. It is reprinted now as a prelude to the author’s boyhood memoirs that will appear later this year.