Scenes From A New Marriage
by NATALIE ELLIOTT
Two months after your wedding, you move to Bergamo. It was part of the plan all along — your husband is becoming a Montessori teacher, and over the next ten months, will be taking what is largely considered the most demanding course for certification. At the orientation reception, at the behest of the directress, the spouses in attendance stand up and introduce themselves. A bulky Finnish man in a blazer pledges his intention to take care of his two daughters while his wife studies, and everyone coos in warm appreciation. The last in line, you demure, unnoticed. A moment later, the directress, who is a ferocious, dazzling British lady, wants to know why you didn’t, asking in front of everyone. Flushing, you gasp for a word. “Because I chickened out,” is all you can manage, eyes downcast.
Your wedding was a triumph but your marriage is not. A hasty, family-only ceremony that was planned and perfectly executed within two weeks. You both trembled before the other, languid sweat-droplets mingling with tears in the Texas heat, reading vows penned in the most humiliating privacy. Your parents, who had never met, got along graciously. Over champagne and tequila shots, everyone in attendance said it was the most moving ceremony they had ever witnessed.
Part of the understanding is that you would play housewife. “This course is so challenging,” all of your husband’s mentors say, “you really just need to be there for support.” You nod, grinning blandly, groping for a misplaced wineglass. “Well, he did that for me, when I was at the magazine,” you assure them. They raise an eyebrow, “But this will be different.”
Neither of you speak Italian. You feel primed for the adventure, but when you arrive, everything is much harder than imagined. Internet service is bafflingly elusive. It’s a small town, so there are no Anglophones. The school arranges for you to look at some apartments. You want the first one, but your husband takes the second one. Your landlord, who lives across the hall, shares the last name of the building. His aunt, a contessa, shares one wall of your flat. It’s the kitchen wall that has a door in it with a taped-over peephole. This is where you do all of your fighting.
You’re a writer, so you’re prepared for the solitude. A friend suggests you make a reading list, maybe of classics that you’ve never gotten to — like someone might do for grad-school comps. You scrawl in your planner a new “assignment” on the Monday of each week. You sketch ideas for essays. Your favorite editor has left the magazine where you worked, so you write to him in brief, plaintive e-mails containing several exclamation points. He writes back amicably with advice, even though he doesn’t have to anymore.
Every day you wake up too late. Your anxious sleeping issues return. Your husband buys you melatonin, lets you get out of bed at four a.m. to check your -email in the pitch-black kitchen. Your eyeballs stick in their sockets. Your husband leaves the house at quarter to eight, and you sleep until nine-thirty, ten-thirty, sometimes eleven. The bells from the church across the street gong you awake. They are echoed by another church around the corner.
At first, you would wake up and read, but now you rise so late you immediately have to make the bed. If it’s close to eleven, you have to start lunch, because your husband will be home anywhere between twelve-fifteen and twelve-thirty to eat. Usually he has to go back to school by one or one-thirty. You shuffle around in pajamas, slurping the rest of his cold coffee. Sometimes you can connect to the internet and check your e-mail. You begin cooking.
You get a job nannying for your husband’s classmate, a single mother from New Zealand. Her daughter is five, named for a Raymond Chandler character, and dresses like a typical cool Montessori child — wearing no less than nine articles of clothing at once, polka dots and plaid dresses and garlands of flowers in her hair. Work is always good for you, since you were raised culturally Protestant — the kind that wants money and to live a life of suffering that can only be alleviated by passionate toil.
The job forces you to get dressed and leave the house. The chief difference between Italian women and American women is that Italian women dress flatteringly before they go out in public. Even their sweatpants are astonishingly tailored and sported with a kind of casual aplomb. You like this, but even in Bergamo you lose the desire to dress before running to the supermarket. At your lowest point, you wear leggings and a sack dress with a blazer thrown over. You hide your sleep-damp hair under a knitted cap. Your socks don’t match. You feel feverish, pouring with sweat on a chilly morning.
The child likes to stop in churches and examine their iconography. Though areligious, she learned about Catholicism here in school. She points out Jesus and Jesus’s mother, even though she’s almost always wrong. Usually you’re looking at Saint John or Saint Peter. She asks for a coin to light a candle. You have to explain to her how a candle is like a prayer for someone you love or who needs help. She assures you that Mary isn’t real and can’t help people. “Yes,” you whisper, “but it’s a comforting thing, and that’s why people do it, to feel better and express love.” She looks at you slyly.
Of course, you buy a rosary on holiday in Bellagio. It’s wooden, so your husband can take turns wearing it. There’s a small picture of the deformed Saint Leopold in the middle. At the end, there’s a wooden cross adorned with one of those violently gaunt silver bodies of Christ. Sometimes when you bend over it slips out of your blouse and the child points and cries, “It’s Lowd Jeesas!” Next time you go into San Bernardino, you light a candle for your mind. Your thin zealotry is so obvious; you don’t even understand what you’re doing. You wonder if you’re channeling Emma Bovary recovering from Rodolphe.
Each night over dinner, you discuss with your husband plans for the next day’s meals. You try to have some kind of meat for him at least once a day. You lose the desire to visit the supermarket with such frequency and start making lentil soups and things he didn’t ask for, but will eat obligingly anyway. Unlike other women, cooking for your beloved doesn’t comfort you, it just gives you a mindless task to keep you from feeling sorry for yourself, a thing to organize your time.
Sometimes he calls you “Wyf,” like in Chaucerian Middle English. He means it innocently, of course. In fact, you probably gave him the idea for the nickname. Still, the more he says it, the more you feel pushed into the glib and careless form, an archetype on mottled paper, squirming between two lines of text. Less and less a thing of flesh that he admires.
Your street is at least medieval, though the landlord claims it was built by Romans. It lurches upward toward the wall of the old city, a vast partition that was erected by the Venetians in anticipation of an attack from the Milan Grand Duchy that never happened. In these parts, the roads are dangerously narrow, and paved with broken bricks laid out like chevrons. Except for the call-boxes and stray sprinklings of neon, your neighborhood looks relatively unchanged since 1910. When you step out at night, the undulating paths and hidden corners make it feel oppressively cold, Dickensian. You almost immediately get sleepy and disoriented. The opposite of Stendhal syndrome, there should be a name for this condition.
You delight in your husband’s exuberance about his studies. You’ve never known him in a moment when he loved the thing he was doing so much. He leads the reading discussion groups. He excels; he stays late to chat with the directress. A classmate jokes that they’re plotting to run away together. You’re not jealous of his experience; you’re proud. The animal of your jealousy burrows much deeper than that.
Attempts to lick your wounds often land you at the late-night bar (as opposed to day-time, coffee-serving bar) one street over. You pass by a lit storefront where college-age activists sit in meetings planning a zine. The bar is called the Caffé degli Artisti, with signage in Papyrus font, and the clientele all seem to take the name too seriously. You have variously encountered a Kosovar photographer who used the word “nigger” affectionately and a leather-jacketed Romanian with a topknot who philosophized about the artificial manufacture of the human soul in the context of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. You loudly upbraid the Kosovar in accent-less, musical English, a strange dialect you developed years ago, solely to communicate poetically with non-native speakers.
Old patterns resurface. You come home from this bar after drinking too much cheap scotch, and hotly, like a smarted child, accuse your husband of wanting a divorce. He grabs you by your shoulders to calm you, but you end up writhing in a sobbing and wretched ball on the kitchen floor. You turn on the fan in the hood over the stove in hopes that the contessa can’t hear your spluttering. The next morning, you sit in the gray silence while your husband sleeps it off, drinking coffee alone and paralyzed at the sound of any overheard conversation in Italian. You realize you need a hobby besides reading D.H. Lawrence and making lunch.
Your vocabulary expands to about fifty words, maybe five sentences. You don’t really like Italian. It’s all of the hard parts of Latin without the familiar cadence of Spanish. And you’re too willfully Protestant to appreciate Italian culture. You give yourself pedicures in the bidet. You despise the tawdry, oversweet pastries and tire of gelato. You save all of your vegetable scraps, onion skins, pancetta fat, and cheese rinds and boil them down for greasy broth. This makes you feel equal parts the noble pauper and the resourceful wife. You’d give anything to eat food made spicy with something other than black pepper, to drink dark beer, to return to your diet, not mainly comprised of wheat and sugar and dairy.
It’s frustrating, as a writer, to have no language. It’s tremendous, as a wife, to have a distracted husband. You oscillate between quietly resenting him and wanting him too much. You weep at missing him; your plodding attempts at inspiring affection are often met with his swift recoil. Nobody wants anyone that desperate, and you know better. You can’t seem to escape the torments you’ve established for yourself. The next movie you watch is The Earrings of Madame de…, you notice she leaves those precious baubles in the church at the end. Sometimes you stare too hard at certain men, examining them, wondering if you should also have an affair. But it’s impossible, even out of boredom. Loving someone to bits is basically terrifying for that person, and that’s what you always do.
Your husband finally decides you can’t hide in your reading and movie-watching anymore. After all, he was around for the week last spring you plowed through three volumes of Richard Yates. You were so despondent — thank god you weren’t married then; you probably wouldn’t have survived. On weekends, your husband sits on the foot of the bed while you read, like a house cat. You stubbornly ignore him, even though he thinks he’s withering inside. You two are constantly battling for the other’s attention. It’s never delivered at the right time.
This new marriage is somehow the greatest challenge to yourself you’ve ever accepted. It’s the arduous chemical breakdown of two blazing, demonstrative people who must dissolve, piece by piece, into the bigger entity that they have asked to become. You were never ready to be a housewife, even though the act of completely absorbing yourself with someone you love feels, in the abstract, like an attractive idea. The reality is as lonely as it has been in novels for two hundred years. But the thing itself, the institution, is a true and assenting agony you never expected, and you begin to understand that no authority you looked to as a guide has perhaps ever portrayed it accurately.
Natalie Elliott is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can find her twitter here.
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