In the month between her mother’s death and her own suicide, Giovanna went on vacation to the South of France.
You’ve had a shock, they said. Live a little. Get some air. Provence is nice, you could go there.
Giovanna did as she was told. She traded in her vacation time and her savings for one round-trip ticket to Marseilles. Her airplane tilted dangerously, the Mediterranean on one side, the sun on the other.
Have a breather, they said, as if she had never breathed before. As if she had to be told how to do it. As if grief were just this: a condition of not knowing how to properly breathe.
The man in the aisle seat reached over her to close the window shade, his arm brushing her breasts.
Take some personal time, they said.
The shock of landing jolted her neck from her spine, upending her purse, sending breath mints, tampons, half a chocolate bar, dried-up pens, makeup, digestive tablets and eye-wetting drops in all directions. Giovanna knelt in the aisle, picking up wrappers. Men in black suits frowned and nudged her with pleated pant legs.
The wheels of Giovanna’s new suitcase stuck in the cobblestones of the old city. The wind was beginning to howl, lifting café awnings and wave crests. Women in long white dresses floated past, disappearing down streets that coiled instead of crossing.
Live a little, they said, she would have wanted you to.
Giovanna’s hotel room had a framed picture of a lavender field, a rusty bathtub, an open window so high she could not reach it, and a bed hard as a gravestone. When she dropped her suitcase on the bedspread, the Dust of Ages lifted up and floated back down.
Giovanna walked down the stairs into the night.
You get one chance, she said to the relentless cicadas creaking out mortality and desire. Convince me.
Go to Aix-en-Provence, they said, The Cathedral has two(!) gothic naves!
So the next day, a Monday, Giovanna matched a bus to a picture in her guidebook and sweated out a bottle of rosé down a highway that was exactly the same as all the other highways except that the signs were blue.
But, in Aix-En-Provence, Giovanna found only Robert.
Robert was lounging on the marble steps of the two-gothic-nave cathedral, smoking a cigarette. He looked so spiderlike in his tight jeans that she thought maybe that was what he was, a spider, what he’d been this whole time. She thought of him sprawled, skinny-legged, against her shower tile, crawling up her thighs, blinking at her through architectural glasses. If he was just a spider, she might be able to forgive him.
“Robert,” she said, naming him, as if to staple him in place.
“Giovanna,” he said, as if he hadn’t disappeared from a place he was supposed to be, i.e., their marriage, and reappeared in a place he didn’t belong, i.e., her Personal Time Vacation.
“Are you one of the knaves?” she asked. His mirrored sunglasses smiled.
“Are you one of the gargoyles?” he returned, in a way that made her conscious of her posture. She straightened. Looked up. The cathedral was Gothic, looking less built than scribbled by someone trying to get their pen to work. There was indeed a gargoyle missing.
They had lunch—of course they had to—in a restaurant that had looked cheerful but was empty and bleach-smelling inside. A waiter with a grave face and a missing hand brought them menus. His other hand was long and maggot-fingered.
“My mother died,” Giovanna announced over her menu. “How are you?”
Robert talked about work. “We’re on the breaking point of something big.” During their marriage, he had always been on the breaking point of something big.
The waiter appeared and set before them two large empty plates.
“Is there going to be food?” Giovanna asked. She wanted her voice to be devastating.
The fish, when it came, was full of bones.
Giovanna had first met Robert one night after work. She had looked up from her newspaper and found him sitting across the table from her. She had been eating alone, avoiding the dusty restaurant mirrors and their disappointments, a disappointment she had seen reflected on so many blind dates she had been tricked into, the men arriving to find that although she was an Italian woman, she wasn’t that kind of Italian woman. She wasn’t flat-haired-gelato-eating-Vespa-sexy. She was heavy-footed, frizzy-haired, and had the gift of making everything she wore look wrinkled. Her eyes were a little too wild. Her nose was in the way. She often spilled her drink trying to check her watch. Robert had smiled and eaten one of her French fries. Later, she wondered if he had just been very hungry.
Giovanna had called her mother. Through the receiver, she heard her mother’s house: crack of old leather, rustle of flowered wallpaper, wooden clock ticking, wolf shutters firmly shut. She heard her mother reach into the pocket of her blouse for her pendulum. There was the slink of chain. She heard the pendulum swinging around and around, emphatically, in the wrong direction.
“You will not marry him, Giovanna.”
“You can’t tell me what to do,” she said, gripping the receiver.
“Giovanna, come home.”
Behind her, Robert had tilted her head up to the mirror. For the first time, Giovanna could see that her eyes were green as razor leaves, that her lips were boyish and playful, that she had a smile. She had married Robert. Shortly thereafter, he’d skittered, the same way he was getting ready to do now, on her personal-time vacation, thin legs tapping at the restaurant floor.
Giovanna thought of the cathedral’s missing gargoyle. She imagined it tipping over one morning, maybe after a storm, and plunging, ugly face screaming at the imminent ground.
She stood up before the check arrived.
“Goodbye Robert,” she said. They shook hands. His palm tingled webbily.
You’ll love the fishermen, they said. So Giovanna woke at dawn to watch them sail into port. She was disappointed but not surprised that every fisherman wore the face of her mother. It was too familiar: brown eyes, tight brown curls, frown underlined three times, this on every fisherman, under red Cousteau hats, zipped into hoods, wrapped around a cigarette, facing the sun. The fishermothers emerged from the orange sunrise fishless, but with armfuls of octopus. These, they dumped on the port, on the pavement, right there, each boat matched to its own tentacled pile, gray, brine-smelling, sickly, and when she approached, every tentacle reached out as if to say, Giovanna, come home.
Of course you didn’t touch them, did you Giovanna? her employer would say.
Giovanna leaned in. A tentacle curled around and around her ring finger. Warmed by the sun, it wasn’t slimy but soft, skinlike, suckers glistening.
When her mother was alive, Giovanna sometimes imagined her disappearing. Her eyes would stumble upon wooden containers: boxes, cupboards, drawers, and she would imagine she could fit her mother inside, just for a day, just for an hour, just long enough to leave the apartment and cross the street to the pastry shop with the window that reflected the sky.
Giovanna turned. The fisherman behind her was rocking his boat with one
foot. This one did not have the face of her mother. He had round tanned
shoulders. He wore his full lips to one side. He was small and hairy.
Giovanna liked small hairy men. They were accessible.
“10 Euros,” he said again. As if she were going to steal his octopus. Or buy it? Take this octopus back to the hotel, and what then? Teach it to juggle? Take it to bed? Tie one tentacle around her neck, swing another over a light fixture, and jump off a chair?
Well it might stretch, but it would hold.
Giovanna walked back to the hotel holding a bag with an octopus inside. The bag sweated: octopus blood, octopus spit, octopus water, all running down her legs. In front of her, a boy stood pressed into a doorway, between two buildings. She smiled at him. Two more boys came running around a corner, side by side, muscled shoulders sweating, unschooled fish. The boy between the buildings met her eyes and shook his head. She looked away. A man set his watch to the cathedral clock and kept on walking.
The octopus slid slowly out into her rusty bathtub. It crawled under the faucet and compressed itself in the recess of the drain. Giovanna closed the door softly and went back to bed.
Go to the open market, they said.
Well the problem with the open market was that it was too full of babies. That’s what the olives looked like to Giovanna: screaming, oily baby faces. For three Euros, you could buy a bag full, and if you got close enough, the saleswoman would pop one into your mouth. Giovanna was terrified that the woman would pop an olive into her mouth.
Another stall was piled high with fish.
This is how you scale a fish, Giovanna, with your thumb, with your thumb .
Once when Giovanna was a girl, there had been a fish on the kitchen counter, a silver fish, a wishing fish, its shining scales like pieces of sky.
Go on, with your thumb, her mother had said. Giovanna did as she was told. In the bowl, the silver scales dimmed. From wish to gray, they died.
Put them back, Giovanna had cried.
In a store window, a school of silver kitchen knives swam upstream, glinting.
You took them off, you cannot put them back. Learn, Giovanna. This is how you clean a chicken. This is how you chop an onion. This is how you should cry. This is how. This is how. Learn, Giovanna. Why don’t you come home? Why don’t you cry?
Giovanna left the market, an oily film of olive still in her mouth. Her mother watched her from inside certain doorways, frowning in disappointment, framed between red geraniums like a postcard.
The octopus was still in her bathtub. It was beginning to expand, purple-gray tentacles spiraling out like galaxies.
Outside, a wind was rising. She could hear it howling over the waves, over the port, around the coiling streets. Now the shutters of the too-high window in her hotel room opened. Closed. Opened. Closed. Openclosed. Giovanna could not reach them.
Every summer, Giovanna’s mother had left her alone for one month, a pilgrimage. Giovanna, stay inside, remember the wolves. Giovanna knew that if she opened the front door, she would find nothing outside but a growl, blood-matted fur, a silence of tearing teeth. Learn, Giovanna. Before leaving, her mother would sometimes reach into a wooden drawer and take out several cards soft with age. She dealt them on the table: a pale rider on a pale horse, a devil, and one that had nothing on it but red. Stay home, Giovanna. Her mother’s wolves walked on two legs and were as tall as a man and would eat her from the inside until she was just a sheath of skin, a picture of a girl with green eyes. When the front door shut, every door and drawer in the house came ajar with the probability of teeth.
The night after Robert left, Giovanna had met the wolves. They had come out from a door left ajar inside her. Their devastation was terrible.
When she was twelve, Giovanna stayed in the apartment, counting the clock ticks. When she was thirteen, she peered through the shutters, looked out into the street and saw no wolves, only the pastry shop with its sky-blue windows and something pink on a shelf inside. When she was fifteen, Giovanna flung open the door, ran down the stairs, and never came home. She made it to a big city where she worked at a travel agency never going anywhere.
Now the wolves were outside her hotel room, at the door, howling at the wind. Open. Closed. The taste of olive was still in her mouth. Open. Closed. Somewhere outside, a boy was hiding from other boys in a crevice of sandstone.
From the bathroom, the octopus said, come home, Giovanna. Open. Closed. Why don’t you cry, Giovanna. Open. Closed. Come home. Openclosedopenclosedopenclosed.
On Thursday, Giovanna went looking for her mother. Every street had a church and every church had a Madonna, pink or blue or black. Every pedestal was carved Madre de Dio, but to Giovanna, it always looked like Matricide.
She found the right church. Like her mother, it was made of stone and pointed at the sky. Giovanna climbed the stairs.
On your knees, Giovanna. Openclosed. Howl the wolves.
Giovanna walked back down the marble steps. She went to her knees. They cracked. The brown fabric of her skirt stretched. She had to lift it up to climb. Around her, in the streets, in cafes, people turned to look. The stone scraped her skin.
Inside, incense spiraled. The smell of woods, the smell of stone, the smell of blood. Under her knees, Giovanna felt water. Every church is built on a river, Giovanna. She straddled the aisle, feeling for current. She looked for her mother in the pews. There were three old men, piled against one another, asleep. She looked for her mother in the font. It was dry. She looked for her mother behind the altar, in the reliquary, not the whole mother, just the hand: red-tinted nails, a red cut-off wrist, long fingers clutching a pendulum in a tight fist, on a turquoise cushion brocaded in gold. The reliquary was empty except for a wooden coin box labeled Penitance. Giovanna dropped a coin. Nothing happened. She dropped more coins and bought candles, arranged them in a row on the stone floor. She lit them, one after another.
On the wall was a painting of Mater Dolorosa, a bleeding heart pierced by seven daggers, sorrowful, lacrimating red blood.
You don’t think that’s a little too much? she asked.
She looked into the flickering candles. She tried to remember. Hadn’t there been a time when she was sick, a child, and felt a cold hand on her forehead? Was there a time a bird flew into the promise of the window, and Giovanna’s mother had made it fly again? Or was that a story? She thought of her mother’s hand on her face. She thought of her mother’s smile, Giovanna, dessert! She thought of her mother’s pendulum, Giovanna, learn! She was scrapekneed on the stone surrounded by candles in front of a bleeding heart—what else, she thought, do you want me to do?
Now, Giovanna said. Now. Now. Now. Now. Now. Now. Now!
In the hallway of her hotel, she could smell the octopus, a smell like brine and algae and rotten strawberries, so thick the air was purple with it, coating her throat. She walked into the bathroom. The octopus sagged like an old woman in an upholstered flower print chair.
You are late, Giovanna.
She sat on the toilet and leaned in to look, the collar of her shirt over her nose. A drop of water from the faucet landed on the octopus head and made a rubbery brown kind of sound.
What do you want, Giovanna?
What did she want? For a second, she made the pendulum in her mind swing backwards. She imagined a warm kitchen. There would be tomato sauce on the stove, hazing the air with warmth and wine. She imagined her mother’s hand on her salty wet face. In this version, her mother would have brought her back to the kitchen, sat her down before the bowl of dead fish scales. She would have made a paste of flour and water, stirring it with a fork, learn, Giovanna. Together, they would have picked each of the tarnished scales from the bowl, each gray flake, they would dip in paste and restore on the fish where it belonged. When the work was done, her mother would take her hand and place it over the fish. Giovanna would have felt the scales come to silver life, sharp as a grate, electric. Her mother would have opened the door for Giovanna herself, Run, Giovanna, and outside the apartment, instead of a dark hallway with no light at the end, there would be sun, yellow sand trespassing onto brown tile, piling onto the door jamb, Run! and Giovanna would have run, fish flapping in her hand, to the wolfless sea.
Now, in the yellow tiled hotel bathroom with a watercolor of lavender behind glass, Giovanna leaned over the bathtub. She extended her hand one last time until she encountered the octopus. It was warm, feverish. Tentacles wound tight around Giovanna’s stroking hand. Scooping the head, she lifted the thing up, adjusting her hands to keep her fingers from piercing the soft skin. She turned on the cold water. It splashed over the octopus and her hand. She held both under the stream, washing it, stroking its softening head. She unwrapped the first tentacle.
Once, in her mother’s house, she had been awakened by a woman crying. The women who came to visit her mother were often crying. They did not stop at the pastry shop. They came at night. They paid what they could. One girl paid in silver fish. She had turned to look at Giovanna through a crack in the door.
Giovanna unwrapped a second tentacle. Once a year, Giovanna’s mother would go on pilgrimage, but once a week, they would go together to kneel on the church steps and feel the current beneath. She thought of the taste of the olive she could not get rid of. She thought of the bronze boy hidden in the crevices of the yellow streets, the other boys chasing after him.
The last tentacle clung to her wrist.
Once, Giovanna had braved the wolves and run down the apartment’s coiling stairs, out the big wooden door, so blinded by the light that a dark blue car swerved to miss her on the street. In the pastry shop, the baker had his back turned. Giovanna pushed the door open, slid her arm into the window display, and took the tiny pink cake from the shelf. Looking up at her apartment from the outside, she brought it to her mouth with shaking fingers. There was the initial ecstasy of sugar, the sinking of teeth, and then another feeling so big it filled her. She had waited too long. This cake was only there for display. And even through the crumbling mold, she knew it had never tasted exactly like sky. Learn, Giovanna.
The final tentacle slid off her wrist. She gathered the octopus and lifted it out of the bathtub, tucking it carefully back into its bag. She had to fold each arm over in the plastic. The smell followed her down the hallway, down the stairs, and into the yellow streets.
Giovanna found a square with an open well, so deep she could not see the bottom, only smell the coolness of moss. She looked over her shoulder. Empty. She dangled the bag over the abyss, feeling the octopus shift around inside it. She tilted her wrist and let the bag slide. Splotch. A last layer of skin around her heart came loose and bled through her ribcage, dripping down her thighs.
On Friday night, Giovanna returned to the fisherman port. She avoided the face of the boys who all seemed to look at her, interrogating her face. The sun was setting, mirrored in the ocean. Blue cloud streaks hung in the opposite sky below, and the boats rolled in it like skeletons, like wooden ghosts. They pulled in their currents, every rope screaming at its post. Giovanna planted her feet, fighting the urge to run.
Her small hairy fisherman was at his same post, rocking his boat with his other foot.
“10 Euros!” he said, recognizing her.
Giovanna blushed, guilty. The bag. The well.
“I do not have your . . .” but she did not know how to say octopus in French.
“I do not have your, the thing,” she said, undulating.
He smiled, mouth to the left again.
Giovanna remembered the way he had jumped from boat to port. The way he wound the barnacled rope with strong arms. She found her razorleaf smile. She tried to look like a mooring post.
In her hotel room, the fisherman stepped close. On his lips, octopus smelled fresh. His hairs were soft. He tried to pick her up. He was too small or she was too earthbound. He could barely move her. Giovanna thought of her desk at work, with the cactus from her colleague and the yellow coffee mug that said “You can do it!” She reached out, slid one arm under his shoulder, and heaved. The fisherman’s blue canvas shoes floated up into the air. He looked at her, leathered skin cracking in surprise. She bent to slide her other arm under his knees, and lifted. He weighed about as much as a small tree, an office ficus. This way, his weight in her arms like a tray of coffee, she carried him to bed. Through the night, he wound himself around her, always seeming to have another arm, to touch her face, to hold her waist, to keep her from rolling off the bed.
Once, in the night, Giovanna woke to find the fisherman sleeping face down, nose squashed against the hard bed. She reached out and touched his arm. Under the hair, it was sleek with seawater and still warm from the sun. She had not known, until then, the taste of the ocean, its texture the way it smoothed over jagged reefs, drew back, engulfing rocks, swirling into spaces and coming back together whole. Almost entirely unlike tears, but maybe close enough.
Giovanna woke again, noon light in her eyes, a thin white sheet wound around her body, her eyelids weighted as if by coins. She pulled the sheet off, opened her eyes. The bed was empty. The cover was bunched. Giovanna patted them down hard. Empty. She threw the pillows to the ground. They made no sound. She looked under the bed. She looked behind the headboard at the ghost outline on the wallpaper. She ripped the sheets off, the mattress cover off, the mattress off, down to the boxspring, down to the skeleton, and then she searched the sheets again.
There was no small hairy fisherman. Not in her bathroom. Not in her suitcase. Not in her pockets. She was alone.
Giovanna watched herself cry in the bathroom mirror.
“Now, you cry?” she asked herself in a familiar voice. The outer edges of her skin, untouched, ballooned away from her. Alone. And still the voices.
What did you learn, Giovanna?
Have a little fun, Giovanna?
She looked in the mirror and watched the little yellow tears that coiled around her cheekbones. Behind them was a woman in her adult years. Not a girl, not a cupcake in a window. Her eyes were still green, but there was a coldness to them. She saw behind her the painting of lavender behind glass. She saw their Giovanna, the disappointment underlining her eyes. Her nose was in the way. The glass was in the way. She, Giovanna, was in the way, a still life, nature morte: wilting flowers, an openmouthed skull, a piece of meat and diffused light that announced “too late to this feast.” And it was because of that, because she was on her Personal Time Vacation, that she wrapped her still-briny fist with bed sheet, stalked back to the mirror, drew her fist back and threw, hard. She felt something give, her knuckles or the mirror, didn’t matter, pulled back, hit again, this time freeing the mirror into a thousand shards that glittered fishlike in their element, free.
There was a line of red blood between her knuckles, so she pulled out her purse. She noticed that her wallet was thin. Opened it. Her euros were gone. There was a thin line of salt around the clasp. There was another line of salt near the door, where she found a coil of barnacled rope. So he had been there, her fisherman. He was gone, but he’d left the rope. He was gone, but he’d left salt. He was gone except for the feeling of Ocean.
I had an affair, she pictured her telling her colleagues. And then I went out into the sun. She smiled. Put on lipstick. She found her way to an outdoor café. She ordered a bottle of rosé. As an afterthought, she ordered octopus. She did not eat, only skewered.
Across the square, the men played a game with bronze balls. Bocce, Pétanque, Boules. Their white t-shirts crawled up around their bellies. There was also a woman. She was tall, her hair wild, draped in red cloth. She smoked a pipe. Her skirts were yellow, green, and red, layered. She had dark eyebrows and hairs sprouting from a thick chin. Every inch of her exposed skin was lit by the sun. She looked back at Giovanna. She moved her pipe to the side of her red mouth, exhaling smoke.
Giovanna felt a smile crumble over her face.
The woman turned to pick up a shiny ball.
Around them, the game continued. Beyond her, as if on parade, all the boys: size of an olive, size of a bicycle, size of a wheelbarrow, skinny or thick-legged, spiderlike or hairy. Beyond them, women in dresses, women on Vespas, fishermen, the smell of the ocean and the cicadas and their endless alternating cries of love and loss and life. At the table next to her, the old man raised a glass of rosé to his lips.
The woman with the bronze ball squinted at the game, a sapphire of sweat navigating her upper lip hair (dark) and cheek hair (also dark), and the sky descended lower and lower as all the light condensed in the square, scattering shadows. In one motion, the woman threw her skirts to the side, aimed, leaned, threw, a movement too perfect, like a wave. Her ball caught the sun, hit the dust, rolled, bounced, and struck another ball, displacing it. The balls clanged. Behind Giovanna, the cathedral bells clanged. The men raised their arms. The woman put the pipe back into her mouth and walked away down the yellow streets, pausing at an intersection, her shadow so tall it stung Giovanna’s eyes.
Giovanna ordered another bottle of wine. The afternoon widened into whispering cicadas and dust and eucalyptus. A wind brought the sea. The light was dimming and Giovanna was just a little bit drunk.
The hotel room had been cleaned as if she had never been there. The mirror shards were gone, the bathtub scrubbed, the shutters closed. There was nothing left on the list they had given her.
Tomorrow, it would be time to leave the hotel, the two-nave-cathedral, the markets with their screaming olives. One more day and Giovanna would fly back to her empty apartment, to the black telephone with her mother’s voice still in it, to the package unwrapped on her dining room table. It had contained her mother’s pendulum, red nail polish, and a scrap of matted gray fur, blood brown at the tip, wolf-like.
To tie the barnacled rope around her home window, now that would be the hardest part. She would have to distract herself from her hands, from the little girl behind the shutters crying, from the fading fish in the bowl. Something bigger would have to prevail; not shame, not guilt, just desire and the glass between her and sweetness. The movement of her hands would be silent. She would take her shoes off first, then her scarf, if any. It would be simple, maybe a little frustrating, tying the knot, like trying to open an umbrella. Not fear. Something else. Not fear, but the feeling of pushing the shutters open to look outside. Not fear, but the desire to encounter the light and catch it like a bronze ball in mid-air. Not fear, but the possibility, finally, of opening the door to the sea. Not fear, but a simple exchange: one knot a fair price for courage on her last day of personal time vacation. What would she do on that last day? Wade into the ocean and let the fish flitter around her legs? Share a morning wine and cigarette with the men at the café? Spring out of bed, run down the dark hallway to the light? Walk down to the square and find the woman? Would she smile? If the woman smiled back, would she plant her calves, so strong into the ground that nothing could uproot her? Would she write a postcard home?
She looked at the window in her hotel room. It was still too high. The shutters were closed fast. She pulled the bed over to the window wall. It screamed over the floor, scraping the linoleum. Giovanna stepped onto the bed. She reached for the window. Still too high. She could feel the shutters threaten to openclose.
Giovanna bent her knees and pushed. She jumped, bedsprings squeaking, frizzy hair flying up and down. She bounced, her skirt lifting up and around her hips. She jumped again, one two three, grabbed the window ledge, pulled herself up by wobbly arms, hoisting herself up and over the window, and slammed the shutters open.
The wooden frame, brown and thick, worn by salt air, dug into her spreading stomach. The frittering clay of the window ledge smelled like the rivers it came from. Tiny specks of it ran from her fingers and disappeared into the wind.
Below, the winding streets lit pink and orange by the setting sun. Below, cicadas, the smell of anise, a guitar. Giovanna leaned into the wind. Past the labyrinth of the city, the sea, dark-watered, furious with life, with waves, seagulls, tentacles, plastic bags, flying fish, swimmers, fishing boats, tourist boats, sailboats, crashing waves, Coke bottles, rocks, starfish, seaweed, jellyfish, dolphins. It stirred as if there was so much below the surface, the water could not keep it submerged, it would all eventually undrown. And everything moved, and everything pulled at the moon, and all the rest of the creatures reached upwards, demanding to live.