|Jan/Feb 2011 Travel|
On the second day of my honeymoon and the fourth day of my marriage, my wife told me, "Last night I dreamt we got divorced." In fairness to Kate, I'd been sulking since our 5 AM connection in Paris. Traveling frees Kate from the tedium of repetition, and makes me feel like a recently released hostage who misses the comforts of captivity.
In Florence, a cab sped us through the Monday morning traffic. "If we sleep now," Kate told me in the back seat, her face blurring into two overlapping ovals, "our sleep cycles will be all out of whack." I hadn't pulled an all-nighter since college.
Soon we were pulling our bags through the cobbled streets, searching for our hotel. A gray alley led to a small elevator that looked like a vertical MRI machine. With the U.S. economy on the brink of collapse, I'd asked her to plan the trip frugally.
After separate elevator trips, an unsmiling girl behind a desk said something to us in Italian. I hated being a typical American who only spoke English. Kate told me our room wasn't ready. We left our bags with the unsmiling girl.
Outside, tourists clogged the plank-thin sidewalks. We ate lunch at Osteria Santa Spirito, a favorite of Kate's from when she was a student in Florence. She marveled at the thin pizza crust and the light cheese. I was in it's-just-fucking-pizza mode.
Back at the hotel, we took a heavy nap, ate dinner early, and crashed again.
The next morning, I sprawled across our bed listening to my iPod while Kate darted around the room getting ready. Back home, I helped run my dad's printing plant, and struggled to find time to write, so Kate had planned for me to spend the morning alone in a café.
She handed me a sheet of paper with key Italian phrases she'd written out—phrases such as, "Excuse me, do you speak English?"
I flung the sheet of paper onto the night table.
"You're not staying in the room all day."
When she didn't answer, I wondered aloud when I'd have my post-lunch coffee.
"After lunch," she said.
"Right, but will my body want it when, technically, it will think I'm eating lunch at 7 PM?"
Her high cheekbones caved in. Her straight lips vanished. Every woman who's ever been disappointed by a man melded into her face and stared at me. That's when she mentioned dreaming of divorce.
She took her pocketbook and left. A few days earlier during our wedding ceremony, she kept blinking from so much love in her eyes.
Up on the roof it was a warm, windless day. I took in all of the earth tones below: Amber terraces; terracotta rooftops; the tan Pitti Palace which I mistook for a prison; and dark-green hills spiked in the distance by towers and domes. I was sure Kate had picked this hotel so I could write on the roof. A church bell rang a three-note melody. I wondered where she was, if she could hear the rising melody.
My friend's wife set me up with Kate when Kate was twenty-five and I was thirty-two. At a crowded West Village bar in Manhattan, I kept glancing at Kate's long neck. She'd been working fourteen-hour days as a production assistant for an independent filmmaker. It had been a month since he'd paid her, and she was behind in her rent.
"Tell him if he doesn't pay you this week, you'll quit."
She looked at me blankly, as if I'd emitted a snippet of bar noise.
"You're not going to say anything?" I said.
"Give me his phone number—I'll call him." It annoyed me that Kate wasn't showing any interest in me even though there was a connection between us, but also, I hated the idea of someone, especially an older man, taking advantage of her.
She had friends to meet, so our first date ended.
I e-mailed her the next day. A week passed before she responded. She'd moved into her mom and step-dad's historic bed and breakfast in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. At the end of the e-mail she casually invited me to visit.
Was she just trying to drum up business for her mom or did she have better things in mind? I wrote back, Would I have to pay for a room?
You'd get the friends and family rate.
The potential of being exposed by Kate's parents and patrons as someone willing to drive ten hours for a deluded fantasy was too daunting. A few weeks later, Kate moved to Los Angeles to work for a talent agency. We lost touch.
After a lonesome lunch of Tagliatelle Bolognese, I went back up to the roof and waited for Kate. I'd wanted to elope to avoid the scripted orgy of excess that weddings usually become, but Kate swore our wedding would be different. Our friend Matt whom she broke up with in fifth grade because he winked at her in the cafeteria, and who grew up to become a beer-drinking Justice of the Peace, married us on the beach at Rye, New Hampshire. It was a breezy Saturday evening in mid-September. Kate looked gorgeous in a taupe dress with a drooping back line. My brother and four of my friends performed a song medley about me (to the tune of "Hey Jude:" "Hey Scoots. You've lost your hair. You are pale and... you look sickly. Your wardrobe—is so intentionally strange. You'll never change—thank God for Katie.").
When Kate finally appeared on the roof, she smelled of cigarettes though she rarely smoked. "You're not doing so good," I said.
"No, I'm not."
She took the room key and left me on the roof.
I lumbered down the stairs. Her parents' divorce and my parents' non-divorce had made us equally independent and equally in need of a happy marriage.
In our room, she said, "If this is how it's going to be, I'll give you back the rings and fly home tomorrow."
I withdrew into a mute robot version of myself.
She went into the bathroom, closed the door, and blasted the shower. It sounded like she was sobbing.
The next morning, she joined me on our roof and started drawing me. I couldn't think of a better place to write. I told her that. She looked up from her sketchbook and smiled.
A middle-aged woman in a sleeveless dress, and her hair in a bun joined us on the roof. She had the elegance of someone who was pleased to have once been beautiful, and thus was still beautiful. She said hello. Her name was Beth—she was on her honeymoon too. The marriage was her second one. I asked her about her first one.
"It lasted fifteen years," she said. "It wasn't bad."
Coming up the stairs from behind me, a man said, "Now that's a heavy conversation." He walked over to Beth and sat beside her. "It's my second marriage too."
I confessed that we'd been struggling, that I'd been a dud pretty much since our plane took off.
The man asked if we were familiar with the enneagram.
Beth said in the slow cadence of a warning, "He's a professor, and this is his favorite topic."
Kate asked him to tell us about it.
"It's a personality typing system. There are nine personality types that we all have varying degrees of. No one type is better than another—everyone has the potential for self-actualization and self-destruction. Once you learn your type you start to realize why you do some of the things you do and why your partner does some of the things she does."
I asked what type would analyze levels of lumbar support before choosing a seat.
He started rattling off questions. "Which would you rather have: Friends or success?"
"Which hurts more—physical pain or emotional pain?"
Twenty or so questions later, he concluded that I'm a one—perfectionistic, rigid, and principled; and Kate's a seven—spontaneous, versatile, scattered, and resilient.
"A perfect combination," Beth said.
Kate's bare leg feathered against mine under the table.
We made plans to meet up with them in Perugia, a town known for its chocolate and art. Then we went back to our hotel room.
Three years after our first date, Kate quit the talent agency and moved to Brooklyn. She was in graduate school at NYU where she'd created her own major, a combination of graphic design, studio art, and early childhood education. She'd seen my humor book in a store and decided to say hello. I'd put an e-mail address in the "about the author" page on the slim chance that a woman would respond.
After a bunch of e-mails we met at Swift, an old Irish pub in the East Village. She wore a blue vest with brass buttons that made her look like a Civil War Naval Museum tour guide dressed in character—but an attractive one. She was calmer now, more present. I remember thinking that the hell of Hollywood had turned her into a woman. That she'd be a good mom. As part of my lifelong experiment of taking an under-confident person (me) and forcing him to be bold, I kissed her in the cab while she was talking. A few moments later, the cab pulled over at Union Square. Kate got out, left her jacket in the back, and took a subway in the wrong direction.
On the fourth morning of our honeymoon, we rented a car and left Florence. "Gusto cacao!" Kate said as we passed a billboard. She popped in a CD of the cocktail hour music from our wedding—we'd given a copy of it to each guest. The first song was "The Man In Me" by Bob Dylan. On our fifth date, Kate cooked dinner for her younger brother and me at her apartment in Brooklyn. Her iPod was on shuffle in the living room when "The Man In Me" came on: "Takes a woman like you to get through to the man in me." I realized right there, while Kate and Rob goofed around in the kitchen, that I'd never end our relationship.
"Comfort You" by Van Morrison came on next. Two years earlier, as Kate awoke from a cone biopsy, against a nurse's explicitly stated instructions, I put headphones over her head and played "Comfort You" from my iPod.
We drove past a long field of sunflowers, their heads bowed. If this is how it's going to be, I'll give you back the rings and fly home tomorrow.
Kate asked, "What's wrong?"
My throat tightened.
"Are you okay?"
I started crying.
"Do you want to pull over?"
I shook my head no.
"What is it? Please tell me."
I replied, "You can't... say... that—divorce. If I... cheat... you can. But I won't."
She promised never to say it again. She said she was sorry. She's quick to apologize—I need that.
A couple of hours later, we arrived at our fifteenth-century, four-story farmhouse at the top of Monteleone d'Orvieto. It was off-season—the grounds were vacant, just as Kate had planned. We parked and climbed a steep hill into the backyard. The cool air smelled of rosemary. I lit up Kate's last Diana Blu cigarette and took a deep drag, enjoying the head rush that only a nonsmoker can get. Endless rows of grapes waited to become wine. I had the panicky feeling of this-place-is-too-perfect-to-be-real. Kate crouched in leggings to test the temperature of the water in our clear pool. I had an urge to push her in, to fall in with her.