Madonna Delle Torri by Bramantino | Ambrosian Library, Milan
Susanna said, “Jerry, the weirdest thing. I had a vision, a hallucination. But before that there was a moment … it was like sometimes we’d be in cathedrals with those machines you plug a hundred lire in to light up the frescoes for a minute. Always, just before the minute was up, I’d see something in the paintings. But when the light went out I would lose it and forget what it was. Well, there was a gypsy woman in the café, and just before I felt so strange, I looked at her and thought, She looks exactly like me. We could be twins and she knows it. Of course it was ridiculous. We looked nothing alike.”
Jerry stretched out beside her and gazed down into her face. How old he looks, she thought guiltily, how unhappy and exhausted. Everything showed in his face, everything they both knew now, that they could not go on together, their marriage would have to end and she would have to leave him to face the death of the planet without her. She knew that Jerry was seeing in her the heartlessness of the young: unlike him, she still had time to fix some part of the world, and if it was ending, she still had the strength to enjoy what was left. And who was Jerry, really, to make her feel guilty about it?
“You don’t look anything like a gypsy,” said Jerry. “You look like Tinker Bell.”
Tears came to Susanna’s eyes. “I know that,” she said, not because it was true but to fill the silence in which she might otherwise have to face the fact that she had married a man to whom she looked like Tinker Bell. An unpleasant buzzing in her head reminded her of Gabor’s painting … She said, “It was just a feeling I had that something was telling me something.”
“Telling you something?” said Jerry. “Please. Keep your feet on the ground.”
~ Francine Prose (1947 – )
American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic
from Cauliflower Heads (1992)
Musings and Impressions
This short story sits in a collection of stories called Desiring Italy edited by Susan Cahill. The book—now yellowed, musty, and mighty—was one I must have bought in 1999 round about the time I received, as a gift, Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun. Italy was swimming in my mind then: the romance of olive trees, Nonnas cooking pasta, Mammas busy with buona cucina, and all the melting, delicious sounds of Italian words, like Uffizi, for instance.
Alas, like the many books I used to buy, they would sit pretty on the shelf, flipped and loved only in their initial days, like a honeymoon, before the thrills and titillation fizzled away. So, too, with the marriage of Jerry and Susanna, all but three weeks old.
The “Gabor painting” Susanna refers to is The Virgin Enthroned with Saints by Bramantino, housed in Milan’s Ambrosian Library. Gabor is a Hungarian ecologist she meets at a Greenpeace conference, the man who first introduced himself with a kiss on her hand, a kiss that made her feel guilty because she found it so “pleasurable and disturbing.”
Visiting the Ambrosian Library on a double couple date, she with Jerry, and Gabor with his wife, Susanna learns that the Bramantino portrait holds a special place in Gabor’s heart: “Not my favorite. MY FAVORITE.”
Her brief sojourn in Milan peels her heart open and pierces it in ways she would only come to realize in her Tinker Bell moment in the last few paragraphs, though the dark rumbles of foreboding would already creep in at the beginning of the story when she observed: “Wasn’t one’s honeymoon cruelly early to be envying the adulterous?”
And oh, how they loved, those hot, sultry lovers who lurked all about Milan!
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