“You know what they call remodeling — the marriage buster,” Katia said, as she took a grim sip of her coffee in the disaster that was Tory’s future kitchen. The ceiling above them was bereft of skylights, only a shroud of thick plastic separating them from the elements. Lucky for them that December in Southern California meant eighty-degree weather.
Tory blinked in the fine drift of sawdust that blew continually, sideways and up from the floor, like living in some kind of tan snow globe. She imagined pirouetting in it, like some low-rent version of The Nutcracker. “But your spouse is supposed to drive you crazy. Not die.” She lowered her voice as a toothy boy with skin the color of almonds walked a drill saw through the room, stirring up a whir of dust. He had been there about a week, one of a revolving army of day laborers who came and then disappeared. She could be wrong, but she thought he was flirting with her, and despite herself she tried not to wear the very ugliest of her flannel pajamas in the morning. She noted that Katia bent over the table in front of him so that the dark cave of her cleavage was visible.
Privacy was a thing of the past, Tory and Gordon having given up the rental they had planned to stay in until the house was completed. It had been six months since they had euphemistically “camped” in their own house, jammed into a small maid’s quarters off the kitchen, sharing a dwarfish half bath, cooking over a hot plate, and developing a communal life with the construction crew that included drinking Pacificos on the roof at five each evening before knocking off for the day.
The crew went back each night to homes that, although undoubtedly less luxurious, functioned, whereas Tory and Gordon roamed the ruins of their future like ghosts, unable to enjoy any of it. A Wolf cooktop still in its cardboard box, a marble countertop upended along the far wall. The only thing that actually thrived in the house was the ants — long, sinewy trails of them, going from nowhere to nowhere. For the life of them, Tory and Gordon couldn’t figure out what the insects were looking for, there seemed so little to sustain them.
A month before, instead of readying the finished house for Christmas, they had been informed it would be another three months, and then Gordon had inconsiderately gone and had a heart attack. Tory had always been pleased with their ten-year age spread, thinking no matter how old she got, Gordon would always be considerably older. A safeguard from being cheated on, if nothing else. She had never thought through the flipside of the deal. For some reason, she figured if he made it through his forties, they were safe, but then in his fiftieth year on the planet, in the middle of dry-rotted crossbeams and crumbling Italian limestone, he upped and had a heart attack that put him in the hospital.
Now Tory got teary-eyed every time she watched Gordon argue with the contractor, Ned, or climb the dangerously spiraling staircase for the afternoon cerveza. It had never before occurred to her that he might not be there by the time the house was finished.
In her usual ill-thought-out way, Tory had invited Katia for the holidays, partly for support, partly to support, since Katia had been battling breast cancer, finally getting it into remission only to have her husband, Clay, leave her. Tory had never liked Clay, but she couldn’t tell Katia that right then — it seemed a little underhanded, a little late to the game. She had been a bridesmaid at their wedding after all. Add to that Gordon’s daughter was coming home from college, suffering from a broken romance, and it all made Tory want to pour herself a drink. The taboo against drinking at breakfast was overdone anyway. What was the real difference between a mimosa cocktail for Sunday brunch and a Scotch straight up on a cruel Monday? Instead, Tory left Katia at the table and went to brush her teeth.
Ned, the contractor, had insisted on laying bait traps everywhere, and now as Tory bent down eyelevel with the sink, she watched a slow-moving ant struggling to carry a dead companion. It was epic and tragic in its small ant way. Tory was mortified that she might have been the cause indirectly, although in the past when ants had invaded her kitchen, she sprayed them down mercilessly with Windex.
Back in the kitchen, she watched as Ned climbed down the dramatically dangerous staircase from the master bedroom — a staircase of limestone planks levered into the concrete wall with open air in between each step and no handrails. They were so over time and over budget that Tory doubted that Ned was keeping up the exorbitant workers comp insurance, but in her exhaustion she was incapable of worrying about this, becoming Buddhist about it all.
Ned rubbed his eyes as he talked to her, a habit that allowed him to both avoid eye contact and not seem shifty. “We ripped out the wall of the shower to install the rain dome showerhead you wanted…”
The you wanted barbed, insinuating that Tory’s impetuousness was partly to blame for the disastrous delays.
Tory stayed quiet until she couldn’t bear another moment. “And?”
“You should come see it yourself.”
“I won’t know what I’m looking at. Spare me the agony.”
“PVC pipes. Spliced together. Clogged with old gout.” He spit the words out like they were obscenities. “A sloppy job. I’m surprised the thing ever even worked.”
Tory had grown to detest Ned after the first weeks of moving in, his constant dull optimism that they would be finished soon, his impenetrable, some might say comatose, calm in the face of the opposite. When everyone sat on the roof drinking beer, Ned would strum his guitar like some 60’s commune hippy. But when Gordon lay naked on the half-bath floor, flopping like a fish, Ned had been heroic. Crazed, Tory ran back and forth picking clothes for Gordon (what do you wear to a heart attack?) while Ned performed CPR until the paramedics arrived. After he was stabilized, they couldn’t get a stretcher through the building debris, so Ned carried Gordon’s limp body up the stairs as tenderly as one would a bride. Tory had gone Buddhist about him, too, ever since.
“What does that mean?” she said.
“We’re packing up in a few hours for Christmas break. No water till we get back in two weeks.”
The last straw. Tory’s tears ran gummy through the fine sawdust on her skin. Ned, appalled, turned and fled.
“Well, honey,” Katia said, “look at the bright side. At least we don’t have to put up a tree.”
Surprisingly few people travelled on the actual day of Christmas, most were already where they intended to be. When Tory scored four economy seats to Italy, Katia and Gordon were surprisingly docile, and Caitlin, moody from being boyfriendless, couldn’t care less. A frazzled young mother and her three toddlers occupied the row behind them, the children entertaining themselves by kicking the seatbacks in front of them while mom slept. Thankfully it was a European airline so they gave out small bottles of wine like it was water, and Tory fortified herself. She tried to be upbeat, and read aloud her Intro to Conversational Italian: “Buon giorno. Buona sera. Buona notte. Ciao. Prego. Arrivederci.
“Arrivederci, Roma,” Gordon said. “Remember that song?”
“It’ll be glowing with candelight,” Tory continued. “Italy is full of Catholics so they take the holiday seriously. The churches will be so beautiful for midnight mass. And they have chestnuts roasting on every corner. I love chestnuts.”
Caitlin, dry, aesthetic, asked the stewardess how much farther it was to Palestine from Italy. The stewardess looked troubled and moved her snack cart up the aisle, skipping their row.
“I wanted crackers, and you’re freaking her out,” Katia complained.
“That figures, that you would stereotype anyone associated with the Middle East as a possible terrorist.”
“Honey, it’s Christmas. Who goes there on Christmas?”
“Uh, it’s the land of Jesus’s birth and all.”
Tory opened another bottle of wine. Katia had never had children or stepchildren, and didn’t know the art of ignoring what didn’t kill you.
They stayed in a long dark apartment on a piazza that was anchored on one end by a stern, white church. Tory and Gordon snuggled on the narrow, hard mattress that first morning and listened to the church bells as if they were magic. The bells rang morning, noon, and night, and, in addition, marked every hour, and pretty soon Gordon was complaining that they woke him up, and he bolted the shutters and locked the windows before they went to sleep at night.
When Tory took her brood to Italy, she promised, if not snow, at least crisp, Christmas-like weather, which Southern California never provided, but as luck would have it, they arrived during a record heat-wave so that restaurants shoved mothballed tables outside, and clouds of mosquitoes bloomed on the Arno. Not a roasted chestnut stand in sight.
Tory had been friends with Katia since college, and they were equally relaxed about their aging looks, but Katia had been coerced by her plastic surgeon during her mastectomy to have implants put in. From a boyish figure she had transformed into a B-list starlet. It was a change of identity as violent as puberty. For the first time in her life, she had serious cleavage, and she changed the way she dressed to accommodate it: Spandex T-shirts, sheer button-down blouses. Especially after the idiot Clay left her, it was almost like a challenge, Hey, I’m still in the game. Now she got hungry looks from the Italian men they passed in museums, restaurants, on the street, and Katia, formerly indifferent to flirting, now returned their looks fully, like a starving cat. Tory thought none of this was a good example for Caitlin and tried to distract her with shopping.
“What would you like, honey? A purse? Maybe a beautiful pair of Italian shoes?”
“I want a plane ticket to Palestine.”
Tory sighed. “What about your dad?”
“He can come too.”
She really was a most difficult girl. “How about a plaster-cast of David? For your desk?” She remembered as if it were yesterday Gordon’s visits with the girl when they first married. Caitlin, at ten, distrustful about her father’s new life. But by the end of their allotted weekend, she’d wrap her frail arms around his waist, crying to stay with him. There were times, those first years, when Tory feared he’d capitulate, go back to his ex just to mend the family.
The unseasonal Florentine heat made trudging through the narrow, cobbled streets tiring. The Boboli gardens baked. The leaves on the roses were scorched. In the streets, sewage gases bubbled up from the vents and filled the air with threatening, portentous smells. Tory imagined that this was what it had been like in the Middle Ages, the contagions of plague and cholera that ravaged the fortress cities regularly. There were more torture museums than you could shake a stick at. They saw Galileo’s first telescope and his shriveled, tobacco-colored middle finger behind glass. Tory thought she had underestimated the sadism of the Italians.
In the palazzo where their apartment was, a small, rickety elevator took up three of them at a time so that one was always left behind, or they took turns in pairs. Late one night, Caitlin was with them, forcing Tory to stand so close to Gordon that she could smell his aftershave. If she were alone with him, she fantasized she would have raised her skirted leg, and he would make wild, panty-less love to her in that metal cage. Since his heart attack, he had not touched her. He absent-mindedly hummed a tune musicians had been playing in the Piazza della Signoria. They read that the piazza had been the site of regular hangings and burnings by the powers that were, but now they mostly only served overpriced Bellini cocktails to the unwary. Instead, Tory held Gordon’s hand and felt old.
On their first Friday night in town, Gordon felt too tired to go out to dinner.
“How can you stay in while we’re in Florence?”
“We’ve been out every night since we got here. I need a rest.”
“I don’t want to go alone.”
“Take Katia and Caitlin out.”
Caitlin was sitting sideways in a stuffed chair, long coltish legs over the arm, watching CNN. “I’m staying with you, dad. We’ll order pizza.”
Undeniable that Gordon had grown mild since the attack, and he seemed irritated that Tory wasn’t catching on. He acted like this was a Lesson for the Future Without Him. “A girls’ night out will be good for you.”
Normally she would have pouted, or even broke out in tears, but she wanted to act brave in front of Caitlin. “I know just the place.”
“It’s a blue moon night tonight,” Caitlin yelled, riveted to the TV.
Tory’s idea of authentic meant obscure, and she and Katia made the long walk over the Ponte Vecchio and started down the warren of streets of the Santo Spiritu. Although she had programmed the address into her cell phone, it seemed optimistic in the face of the medieval disorder, the street names inconsiderately painted on the upper corners of the dark buildings, impossible to see, blue moon or not. They walked past window after window of charming restaurants, filled with candlelight and people and food smells, and Katia lagged farther and farther behind.
“Wouldn’t any of these be fine?” Katia finally said.
“This is a special place. Only locals go there.”
“Because only they can find it.”
The guidebook said that house numbers for businesses were painted red, for residences in black. Or maybe it was the reverse, Tory couldn’t remember, although none of it mattered because it was too dark to see. Where was that full moon anyway? They wandered up and down a street for fifteen minutes before Katia, in a burst of frustration, went into a business to ask for help. It ended up being the restaurant they were looking for.
The place was empty and brightly lit, more like a Laundromat. The proprietor was friendly enough, if distracted, despite the pitch of Katia’s tight-fitting sweater. He put down a plate of antipasti and a bottle of wine they had not ordered, then escaped to check on the soccer game on TV in the kitchen before they had a chance to order.
“I told you we came too early,” Tory said. “He figures we’re Americans.”
“We are Americans. Who like to eat early, what’s wrong with that?”
There were small, bite-size, olive pizzas, and prosciutto wrapped around asparagus, salted ricotta, a side of white beans, and wonderful bread. The two women plowed through the food, then finished off a large arugula salad.
“This is the best food ever,” Katia said, licking her fingertips.
Tory nodded, eyes closed. “Better than sex.” She had had too much to drink on an empty stomach.
Katia patted her hand. “Give him time. He’s probably scared he’ll have the big one, you know. Like a time bomb that could go off any minute.”
Tory nodded, maudlin, and speared another piece of cheese. “How did we end up in the most romantic city, on the most romantic night, two women alone?”
“Gordon is still here. Quit acting like he’s not. Trust me, you’ll know when he’s gone. I haven’t slept with another man since Clay left.”
Katia looked strange and lovely that night — her close-cropped brown hair, her unlikely tight sweater. Tory would never manage as well alone. She felt guilty that she had revealed sacred information about Gordon. As much as she loved Katia, she would not reveal the sad failings of their marriage to an outsider. One of the bonds of matrimony was not to let the garbage leak out to the world at large.
The proprietor came sailing out of the kitchen with two large plates of mushroom ravioli. Their menus still lay, ignored, at the corner of the table. They had never ordered. Was it maybe like omakase, like those Japanese sushi places back home that kept serving you food of their choice till you were full? The proprietor smiled big every time either Tory or Katia said anything in English, politely not understanding. But they did know enough to order sparkling water, acqua gassata, and it arrived stubbornly still, so maybe he simply didn’t care, or maybe he was taking advantage of their tourist status (remember to check the bill) to clean out his kitchen. Why did the Italians always treat Americans like silly children? Regardless, the ravioli tasted like pillows of foreplay.
By the time the homemade Limoncello and cantucci arrived, Tory and Katia were floating away on an orgasmic, foodie high when Gordon and Caitlin appeared in the doorway. “How long have we been here?” Tory whispered. Nine-thirty, and the restaurant was packed. The hostess shook her head, but Gordon pointed a finger at their table and was led through.
“You came,” Tory said, and the shock of seeing him made her face burn, as if she had been caught being unfaithful. “What changed your mind?”
Gordon shrugged. “Caitlin wanted to see the blue moon so we walked down to the Arno. Then it was so close.”
Neither Tory or Katia believed this story for a second, surprised only that Caitlin didn’t contradict him, that they had managed to find the hidden place at all.
“I’m glad you came,” Katia said. “Tory’s been pouting.”
Gordon sat down and looked up at Caitlin, expectant. “Someone had a bunch of admirers on the bridge.”
Caitlin rolled her eyes and pulled out a chair with a shriek of wood on stone.
“You should have fun with these Italian boys,” Katia said, “while it’s still meaningless.”
Caitlin pursed her lips. Tory wondered if she herself had been so gloomy and earnest at that age.
“I used to be like you, saving it,” Katia said. She had drunk another glass of wine and was feeling feisty. Pretty soon she’d go on a tirade about Clay. “Take it from me — someone older and wiser. The only thing I regret is all the men I didn’t sleep with.”
“You should have called me back then,” Gordon said, laughing.
Caitlin’s voice raised in pitch. “You don’t understand. Farid and I are soul mates.”
“When you’re eighteen, ‘soul mates’ is a euphemism for sex.” Katia banged down her wineglass for emphasis and spilled purple drops along her fingers, the tablecloth.
With the addition of two more people, the proprietor turned the table over to an Irish waitress. No more omakase. Tory suspected that sending the girl was to avoid them ordering in their remedial Italian. Now the two women got to re-experience the entire meal as voyeurs.
The waitress took their orders and delivered only what they asked for, which seemed much less magical. Another bottle of wine was ordered to keep the new diners company, and although Tory was quite sure she was drunk, she also was quite certain that the horse-faced Irish waitress was flirting with Gordon, and that he was flirting back. After the girl delivered their salads, she stood in front of him for an inordinate amount of time and answered Gordon’s uninspired questions.
“Of course, the weather is much nicer, and there are so many English and Irish here, a whole slew of pubs that I can go to when homesickness strikes.” The girl spoke only to Gordon, as if the rest of the table didn’t exist. Tory and Katia exchanged significant looks.
“But how do you do it?” Tory said, the wine definitely affecting her brain. “How do you bear living in all this dead beauty?”
The thing that struck her about the city was that everything had already happened, long ago, and they were simply trolling among the remains. The place was as much a museum on the outside as the inside. Which did not prevent her from loving it.
The girl dragged her gaze over to Tory, then quickly turned back to Gordon. “Can I be getting you anything else? More bread?”
“That would be amazing,” loyal Katia said.
An hour later, the meal finally ended for the second time, they staggered up out of their seats and towards the door. Gordon left a lavish, lecherous tip, and the Irish girl hurried after him with his forgotten scarf, wrapped it around his neck, and kissed his cheek. They all stood, a bit speechless.
“You remind me of my uncle,” she said. “He died a few years back.”
But all the victory that Tory could have felt over Gordon disappeared, and she was left only with pity. He was the love of her life, after all. She was embarrassed that he was deemed too old, too homely, to be seen as an object of lust by this young waitress with the horse face. Tory went so far as to wish Gordon would run away with the slutty Irish girl because hating him would be so much easier to bear than his dying.
The moon had risen, and, high, they trudged through the glowing streets, feeling cautious and bruised by all the superfluous beauty. Crossing the bridge, the moon silvered the backs of the heroin addicts huddled over their supplies, and the lighted windows of the buildings reflected nicely in the algae-clogged Arno.
“Such a lovely night,” Katia said, hooking her arm in Gordon’s. “Thank you.”
“But why not a single vendor of chestnuts?” Tory said. “Imagine walking along with a hot bag of them, nibbling as you go.”
“How can you think of eating another bite?” Katia asked.
Caitlin was still sulking, and Tory, sulking over the injustice of the absentia chestnuts, walked next to her, putting her arm around the girl’s brittle shoulders.
“So tell me about this “blue moon” of yours.”
Caitlin shrugged, sensing drunken patronage, but going along with it. Her mother, Gordon’s ex, was mostly too busy for her, hosting a woman’s talk show on TV, so even a clumsy, second-hand mothering was probably better than nothing.
“It’s not really blue, of course,” Caitlin said, squinting out at the dark waters. The girl thrived in the world of facts, but Tory doubted that would take her far in life.
“It’s like an extra full moon based on the solar calendar. A numerical anomaly. It doesn’t happen very often.”
“Like us all being together in Florence tonight.” The idea of Gordon being gone put her relationship with the girl in perspective. She did not fool herself that even after ten years of marriage, Caitlin would think it necessary to include her in birthdays and Christmases. They were accidental family.
The moon patted strips of milky light down the length of the slowly churning water.
“Kind of disappointing that it isn’t really blue.”
“When it’s really blue it’s due to atmospheric disturbances — volcanoes or forest fires — that emit particles in the air. The particles need to be one micron in diameter, wider than the wavelength of red light.”
“You’re a frighteningly smart girl, aren’t you?” Tory said.
They had been bad tourists, wandering the streets in search of restaurants, wine, panini, none of which were at all hard to come by, exploring place almost exclusively through their taste buds, but now they collectively felt that they should see something “important.” They decided to go first to the duomo, the most obvious attraction, beautiful if overwhelming, just in case they ran out of steam. They trekked around the cavernous interior, and then Caitlin insisted on going to the top of the dome. They agreed, not really thinking about the logistics — many, many stairs, four hundred, sixty-three to be exact — until they had already paid the hefty euro entrance fee.
At first it was a game, playing a relay of who would lead and who would follow, but they were exhausted by the time they reached the narrow catwalk around the top interior of the dome. The fleshy angels writhing above them, the larger-than-life, hallucinogenic vision of the Last Judgment, still didn’t prepare them for the excruciating last push. What, other than faith, could explain such a thing being built? The stone passage grew much narrower, the steps small and steep. It was poorly lit. The air smelled dank. There was the minerally smell of bodies passing them on their way down.
Caitlin, enthused for the first time on the trip, plunged ahead while Katia and Tory grabbed handholds and tried to gain leverage off the curving smooth bare walls. Tory’s leg muscles screamed, but she was concentrating on Gordon’s labored breathing behind her. She knew he would be insulted if she suggested they stop short of the top, instead descend and hang out in the limbo of the Last Judgment and wait for Caitlin.
The stairs spiraled tighter and tighter. Small, fortress-like windows with views of the city spread out below them. They could see the sunny hills, and tumbling gray-black clouds rolling over them, a god’s eye view.
“I can’t do this,” Tory said.
“Getting too old for this,” Gordon taunted, and she took a deep breath and pushed upward again, only later realizing that he’d goaded her like a teenager, to hide his own frailness. Their life — built on granite, built on sand — either way it would end in ruins. She felt like calling back home and telling Ned to take a torch to the house, burn it down to the ground.
After another impossible series of turns, the three adults stopped, panting, spent, while Caitlin spiraled above them. From far away, they heard: “Come on, everybody. It’s so cool.” Gordon closed his eyes and leaned his forehead on the stone wall. Tory’s pulse stopped. Forget all the religious stuff, she has a vision as least as powerful as that one down below: her future without him.
Gordon opened his eyes. “Gelato is what I need.”
The clouds came down from the north, and cold rain pounded the city. The Californians realized they had been fooling themselves, thinking they wanted winter. It was the night of their post-Christmas celebration, and Tory had begged the manager to scrounge them up a tree. After the climb back down from the dome, she decided to go back to the apartment for a nap and to check on the night’s preparations. The rest of them would press on for the first floor of the Uffizi.
Alone, the rooms felt strange — the shutters dark, the rooms gloomy. She went to pop open the window and saw the pigeons close up — their charcoal feathers, their blood-red eyes, their cruel feet. She left the window ajar and heard their cooing under the eaves. She lay like a schoolgirl in the high, narrow bed, with its chaste post on each corner. A long time ago, Tory had been a professional ballet dancer, but there came a day when she lay in a bed much like this one and simply no longer wished to move. Three months later she had met a married Gordon in a bookstore.
After he had divorced Caitlin’s mother and married Tory, Gordon had cheated on her, too. It was the time when they had seemed the closest together, and his absences for business had been almost painful. On his homecoming days, she cleaned the house, cut flowers, bought wine and prepared elaborate meals, much like the one that was being prepared for them today by others. When at last he had confessed, all she could think of was the happy hours she had spent in the kitchen, imagining each task as an act of devotion to him. Afterwards, their old house had appeared dead, as if they had been stolen from, but without anything being missing. Eventually they sold the house and bought the one they were now remodeling.
Like other couples, they had gotten through, but had not withstood. Tory never forgot that Gordon was capable of betrayal. That knowledge infected her, until she found herself sure of nothing: children grew up and left, friends moved away, neighborhoods and cities metamorphosed before one’s eyes, and even a repentant husband could not guarantee to be there forever. Eventually, in the mirror, even one’s own self slowly slipped away into the past. Betrayal didn’t cancel love, only drove it deeper, like a pick into a block of ice.
It was late afternoon when Caitlin and Katia returned laughing, carrying brightly glossy, colored bags. They put on pretty dresses while Tory built a fire. She opened a bottle of wine. Caitlin brought one wrapped gift after another to put under the bare tree.
“I kind of like this crazy Christmas,” she said.
They played carols they had stored on their ipod, opened boxes of cookies, cut bread and cheeses for a platter, washed fruit.
“Where’s Gordon?” Tory asked, still lost in her ancient, sour resentment of him.
“He said he was getting something special.” Katia winked. When Tory had taken off to a cabin in Big Sur after finding out about the affair, Katia had tracked her down and sat on the deck with her, overlooking the ocean. “What’s so great about this, huh?’
Now, feeling unaccountably in the holiday mood, they sat around the fire and talked, ate the cheese and drank the wine. The restaurant downstairs called and asked if they were ready for the dinner to be brought up.
“Not yet,” Tory said, fumbling with the cord, staring out the French windows at the dark, inhospitable night. It was raining the night Gordon showed up at the cabin, obviously directed there by Katia. He had stood on the gravel driveway and allowed himself to be pelted with rain for hours until Tory relented and let him in. What if now Gordon was lying unconscious on some street, unknown, in a foreign place, on a rainy night? Caitlin had tired of carols and put the TV back on. Katia changed back into workout clothes to do her exercises. Tory snuffed the candles in dread.
It was then that they heard the rattling of the cagey elevator with a collective sigh of relief. But they made no move until they were sure. At last, the jiggling of the key in the door, and it flinging open. Gordon stood in the doorway — drowned and commanding: “Come here!”
The three women clamored to him.
“Hold out your hands,” he said. He ignored the worry in Tory’s eyes as he shook out a big bag into their poor, cupped palms . Out tumbled chestnuts, like hot, still-beating pigeon’s hearts. Tory wanted to contain them, but they spilled through her fingers anyway, disappearing with sharp little raps against the wooden floor.