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Winter 01
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bachelor girl

The Island
Stefania Fumo

The couple sat under an awning in the café at the new port. The old port, built in Roman times, lay nearby. Tiny fishing boats nested behind the thick, ancient seawall, which swept in a great curve beneath the village: a clutch of houses, winding uphill in a racket of creeping, narrow, scented streets. Behind them the men clustered at the bar: fishermen, and workers on the ferries that brought guests to the island from Naples and Positano. They were listening to the Tour de France on the radio. After holding back for most of the race, the Italian, Cipollini, was making his bid. In front of them, the ferry yawned and waited whitely.

We’d heard the island was pretty, not too crowded. Afterwards he spoke of it for a long time, and always enthusiastically. I realized he had fond memories of our time there.

They arrived on a Sunday, fresh from the crossing. Immediately the island enfolded them, both glaring and soft: a siren calling to her lovers, drowning them in her blue skirts. A mirror gathering light, reflecting it with unbearable intensity. Don't worry about a thing, he told her. You're on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean.

To reach the house we had to climb up a steep road for about twenty minutes. A great heat and light bore down on us. We hugged the faded pink walls, trying to keep within the narrow strips of shade. A lunchtime babble of televisions and clatter of dishes came out of the shuttered windows. Colored curtains moved softly in doorways. The street was deserted, intimate. We could sense the villagers eating, talking or sleeping just beyond the walls. We looked out onto rolling olive groves, and fields blotted by the dazzle of light. Mimosa and hibiscus glowed in clusters. The sea curling and singing below.

The village was composed of faded yellow, rose, ochre houses; cool corners; silent, battered cats; laundry swaying on lines. In the hot afternoons old men in berets came out on the square, sat under the oleanders with their pipes. The street to the house where they rented a room was long, narrow, sunbaked. It ran between walls hung with weeds. Which threaded the air with a multiplicity of scents.

We ate our morning cornetti on a bench in the bright square, then had coffee in the bar. It was while shopping for our picnic in the little supermarket that my stomach began to clench. I was in a hurry to reach the sea: to give myself to the powerful water. We climbed down the hundred steps cut into the cliff, and stayed in the rocky cove all day. During the morning some boats came, and went. We swam, looking at the schools of fish flying in formation along the shining waterways. The underworld was cool, green and restful. Tiny birds played on the cliff above us, loosening a rain of pebbles. I listened to them shrieking.

All the restaurants in the village had outdoor grills. At the end of the day, the islanders cooked the wonderful great fish they had hauled off the boats an hour earlier. In the old port, gnarled men sat in the cool of the evening, carefully folding their thin red nets.

He touched me last night. I wasn’t expecting it. Just outside our window, a little tree whispered silkily in the night winds. He came quickly. Immediately afterward he dropped away. With haste I swallowed myself in sleep.

After nightfall they sat for a while on a bench in the square, smoking. Myriad children of all sizes ran madly, systematically, in the yellow lamplight. The older people strolled, or drank at one of the three cafés. On a bench opposite, a little boy and a little girl sat quietly side by side. He clutched a huge silver revolver, she a huge blond Barbie doll. With obvious desire they watched the other children playing. They were paralyzed.

On this tiny strip of pebbly shore an ancient face is carved into the cliff just above my head. A few feet away, fish fly lazily over submerged mountains. Water pours itself over the rocks, climbs the steps dug into stone. There she sits on a nearby rock, sunning herself: lithe and golden. I am aware of his gaze on her. I make myself look at him. He has become thick in the waist, is missing some hair; I have stretch marks on my thighs, and I am afraid. I fight the sun all day. I try to keep the future from coming my way: from showing up and smashing everything. I emerge finally at the other end of the long afternoon: riddled with dread.

During the Fascist regime the island was used as a prison. Military police patrolled every inch of its shores. In the historical museum they saw a diagram of the guards' movements: formations of paranoid little lines combing the clifftops, back and forth, over and over. Did the locals hate the prison? she asked. Probably all worked as screws, he said. He was looking at one of the visitors. She was short, with long wavy dark hair. He could not, it seemed, take his eyes off her.

We sat on the wall for a while and looked at the stars, or tried to, it seemed impossible to really see the sky, which was all velvet, overflowing with patterns, and all around us the crickets, trees rustling, innumerable herbs releasing their scents onto the wind. Fig trees, cactuses, morning glories, pines, apricots, lizards. I both dreaded and longed for bed: for the possibility of contact no longer being withheld. He slept. I touched myself under the sheets, quietly and in shame.

They went down to the village for dinner. The restaurant was busy with new arrivals. A few feet away, several luxury boats lay docked, lapping in the night water. The summer people were out in force. They sat in the wind, under the stars, and drank white wine. She wanted him to talk to her. He resisted her, successfully.

Later in the night I found her letter. It was the kind I longed to write him. In the dream I hoarded it, battled to read it all the way through before waking up. But I was doomed. In horror and fascination I discovered him as a man capable of inspiring, and receiving, and keeping such a letter: it was joyous, promising, passionate, bewitching.

She watched him watch the woman at a nearby table. She was lithe, with wavy dark hair. When she turned to look over her shoulder her smile was serene: that of a queen, sure of her power. She drew all eyes to herself. She really lays it on, he said. You shouldn’t look so much at other women when I’m around, she said tightly. He smiled. She knew that from now on she would watch all the women on the island: trying to catch sight of this one again, and wondering, was he looking for her also?

In the afternoon we walked back through the perfume of weeds, into the house, where we fell sleep. When we woke up nothing had changed. I forced myself to wait. After a while, he decided in my favor. He began to caress me. I didn’t like it. Then I got excited. I felt sick.

Ever since she had begun to read the letter she believed every word of it. It filled her days with the novel, indelible magic of dispossession. She couldn’t see how she had lived until now, not knowing the letter existed. She couldn’t stop reading it.

I am afraid of everything: the cliffs, the holes, the vivid water. He is self-contained. His willpower crushes me. I have watched him so carefully since I first found out. My stomach is in a vise. I eat to calm my loneliness. I have been noticing all the weeds and touching them. They are papery, silky, scratchy, sweet.

On their last night on the island they ate at the quiet restaurant near the old port. The black cat appeared: silent, grim, huge. He stared at her gravely, demanding propitiation. Delicately as an old man he took the fish head from her panicked hands. His great body was racked with scars.

In the room, with the wind outside, the bright tree at the window, he waits for me to speak. He waits while I suffer; it is a beautiful day; repeatedly my words rise up and die quick little raging deaths. I think, if I don’t speak now I never will; we will never speak to one another. I look for a new way. Deprivation quiets me. His waiting fills the room with a kind of pitying silence. I give up. My stomach is a fist. He reaches for me. I accept his body once more. I find I am, as always, grateful for this temporary reprieve.

They carry their bags down to the new port. They have a coffee at the bar, in the wind. The Tour de France is on the radio: Cipollini is laboring up the hill. A new marina is under construction. Away over the pale water, the crane is motionless. At the next bar over, one young and one old woman sit shelling peas. The ferry crew plays cards at a nearby table. Everyone is listening. Cipollini is in the insane last stretch of the race. One by one, impossibly, he is overtaking all the frontrunners.

The sky is light, cloudless. Small breezes move about. He goes for one last swim. I watch him wandering whole minutes in the smooth restless world, looking. He is free. Myriad colors glance off the surface of the waves. Their relentless beauty hammers at me. He is my life. I want to stop, or change. The Italian radio voice works itself into a frenzy. Cipollini wins. The knife in my stomach continues: it is mechanical, insistent, dull.

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