FLORENCE

Mitchell Hagerstrom

Apparently, there is a statute of limitations for holding grudges against a colleague for fucking one’s wife. Still, I was dumfounded when the wife of my former wife’s former lover called to invite me to break bread.

On campus, John and I rarely saw each other, our offices being on different floors. Whenever we happened to pass in the hallways or were in attendance at the same meetings, it was easy to be looking the other way or busy consulting some paperwork.

When Muriel called with the invitation, she also told me they were considering Florence for John’s sabbatical. I nearly spit! And to top it off, she asked me to bring some pictures from my own year there — from those ancient times when photographs were still physical objects.

On the designated evening, I spruced myself up and arrived almost promptly. Handshakes, chucking the baby under the chin, and then I was introduced to my fellow guest, a young woman who I took to be a grad student and who was indeed, although one of Muriel’s, not John’s.

During drinks before dinner I brought out the stack of snapshots, many of which included my wife — now of course my former wife. There she was: a head-shot beneath David’s famous feet, or holding onto her hat as she craned back to gaze up at a church facade, or presenting her posterior to the camera as she bent over a balustrade to peer down at the river.

John shuffled through the stack, sometimes pausing, often frowning. Muriel, who was holding the baby, merely looked over his shoulder, and the young woman lingered over no one picture more than another and made no comments except to admire the light in certain of them where the light was extraordinary.

We were chatting pleasantly about Italy in general when the baby started kicking up a real fuss. He was about 10 months and teething. The young woman held out her arms and took him. She stood him on her lap, but he threw himself against her, circled her neck with his arms, opened his mouth wide and placed it on hers. When he drew back he was laughing and holding on to her hair, a handful in each fist. I could tell that in sunlight her hair would be the same deep-golden shade as my wife’s.

John did the cooking — osso buco, a creamy polenta, everything superb — and we dined at the smaller, informal table near the kitchen. The usual polite dinner conversation: light-weight politics, campus gossip, the weather, some of the newer books, and I learned John and Muriel often engaged the young woman as a babysitter when they had to be away for weekend conferences or such.

After dinner, when Muriel had taken the baby upstairs and the young woman had gone to powder her nose, I watched as John exchanged wine glasses: his empty for the young woman’s, still half full. When she returned she reached across for her wine, took a sip, and set the glass back down in front of him.

That was all: just the familiarity or intimacy of them drinking from the same glass. And then she turned to me: tell us more about Florence, she said.

I cleared my throat and began to remove my wife from those photographs, as though scraping away her image with a knife point or a razor blade. How misleading the soft light in those pictures, I said. How cold the fogs coming off that wide murky river. How damp and comfortless those Italian houses. I made the place sound miserable. I don’t know why. The year in Florence was the highlight of our marriage.

When Muriel returned from putting the baby to bed, the young woman excused herself to help with the clean-up. I watched as Muriel handed her the dishes one by one as they were rinsed, and I noted that when the young woman filled the lower rack of the dishwasher, she bent from the hips, keeping her back and legs straight, her knees locked, as though performing some kind of dance exercise, not a household chore. There had been no mention that she was a dancer, but my wife had been in her in her younger days. I remembered one of our first outings together, a rather stuffy lecture on ecclesiastic architecture. She had worn a red dress.

Anyway, Muriel served coffee and sweets, and then the evening was over. I was thanking Muriel, donning my jacket, and gathering my things when John and the young woman stepped out on the dark porch. I heard him say: Goodnight. And then, after a pause, perhaps a pause long enough for a kiss: Sleep well.

florence skyline

A month or two later I left for Newfoundland, to the same small fishing village where I have been spending all my summers now, a wonderfully quiet place to finish projects. But the digital age being so far-reaching, and colleagues so eager to relay the latest hot gossip, I learned that John and Muriel were not going abroad as planned. They were staying in town and it was rumored they were divorcing or were at least separated.

On my return home, I found myself one night seeking some kind of distraction, and a drink. I took myself across the river, to a run down place with pool tables and a lack of the loud thumping kind of music that attracts students. But I should have remembered John also knew of the place, and there they were.

She was leaning over a table, her hold on the cue uncertain, awkward. Then she shook her hair back over her shoulder and looked across the table at John. He placed a finger lightly on the opposite rim of the table, and she moved her eyes back to the yellow ball. Her stroke was sure and the ball rolled swiftly into a pocket. Again and again she followed his direction until she had run the table and there was a shout of laughter from them both. And John turned to me — I hadn’t realized he had noticed me — and said: together we play better than I do alone.

But I can’t cook, the young woman said.

That’s true, she can’t, John confirmed.

I shrugged as though it didn’t matter, which it didn’t, and he invited me to join them. We settled ourselves around one of the small tables with our beers and I told them about my summer, about my nearly finished project, but not about my fears that it would never be published.

Florence is lovely, I said — not an intentional change of subject, but remembering all the research I had completed there — and I added, perhaps with a bit of spite: I hear you’re not going.

I’m not, John said, and the young woman looked down and began picking at the label on her beer bottle, her hair falling across her face. John reached over and tucked it behind her ear. Before anything else was said, his phone rang. It was Muriel.

The call had barely begun when the young woman stood, shouldered her purse, left the table, and headed toward the hallway to the ladies’. John turned to watch her while answering Muriel’s loud monologue with noncommittal grunts: pick up time for their son tomorrow, the medicine worked, no more earache, and would John take him for a hair cut.

When the young woman reappeared in the doorway to the hall, John ended the call, abruptly clicking the phone shut and shoving it in his pocket. The young woman was not alone — a young townie was with her and they were chuckling over something.

John pushed back from the table and gave me a murderous look before striding across the room. The unknown man slithered away, and I saw John grab her arm and pull her back into the shadowed hallway. She shoved him away with surprising strength and no sign of fear. But when she turned from him, he grabbed her arm again, then took her by the throat and began shaking her. I heard a strangled cry. And then his mouth covered hers and his hands moved from her throat to pull her tightly against him. Then soft kisses, tears and whispers, and I saw her shudder. John held her a minute longer, then pushed open the back door and they were gone.

Dazed, I felt as though I had sat through some murky foreign melodrama from the ’50s or ’60s — except I knew the characters and one was my wife. Finally, I pushed back from the table and lurched toward the bar for another drink, another several, before heading home to the comfort of my empty, bloodless bed.

-Mitchell Hagerstrom

February 11, 2013 8:43 pm