Read an Excerpt
Two Exquisite Pain
(This is an excerpt from Chapter Two of L’America by Martha McPhee)
She called him from phone booths all across America, standing at the edges of lonely gas stations by the sides of those long endless roads, while James waited patiently in the car, believing that she was only calling home. It was her grandmother’s car, a black Lincoln boat with a gold inscription on the dashboard reading Mrs. Oliver Carter Brandt, III. She would watch the car lounging heavily in the hot summer sun. She would shut her eyes and wish that she could emerge from the booth as some sort of Superwoman and transform the world, wish that it were Cesare behind the wheel, acting the cowboy or Jimmy Dean, arm draped easily over the back of the long front seat the way he liked to do, his black-framed sunglasses resting on the bridge of his nose. He had loved driving the car, the sheer size of it, cruising the canyons of New York City, sailing the wide highways. The static crackled through the international line connecting them, reminding her of the distance. Even so she could hear his voice clearly, his accent bringing back all of Italy so that it seemed she was headed toward him, not away. It was a dare, that was all, this trip west. She hardly knew James. She was twenty-three years old and had just graduated from college.
In the beginning the conversations were the same. “Are you coming?” Cesare would ask. “You know I’m not,” she would say, trying on toughness. “You are,” he’d respond with his cool confidence a confidence that loved the conditional tense, the “if” that could make all possible. It was by now that she was supposed to have gone to Italy to marry him. At Christmas, however, Cesare had revealed an infidelity, giving Beth a green silk hat that a milliner lover of his had made. It was an exquisite hat, an oval pillbox with gentle tiers. Beth knew its entire story as she opened it, knew as well that the woman would ultimately be insignificant.
She called him first from the outskirts of Hazelville, a little town outside of Pittsburgh that James had wanted to visit because he had been born there. James had been in Beth’s graduating class at New York University, a good boy who detasseled corn as a kid, a geologist in the making whose subject was America, a poet at heart. Beth had been impatient with the sentimental notion of the detour to his birthplace. But she did not let him know that. What she did let him know was that she was falling in love with him deeply, madly. In a field of sunflowers, she told him so for the first time.
Hazelville was a depressing town whose coal industry was long dead and whose character had remained frozen for decades broad avenues with broad storefronts with long-forgotten names: Franklin’s Five and Dime. A town hidden in the recesses and folds of this big land like a mole can hide in flabby flesh. She too had grown up in Pennsylvania, on an apple farm commune in Snyder County, four hours to the east, where hills rolled into more hills and all of it disappeared into wide blue sky. It was Amish and Mennonite country, the men and women in their black plain clothes with their buggies and their horses trotting over dale and hill. More than once, Beth had gotten stoned with a few Mennonite boys. She was the daughter of a hippie and a dreamer, her mother long dead, memorialized in the name her father gave the farm: Claire.Beth and James had camped in some woods not far from the road, on the edge of James’ birth town. In the middle of the night Beth had taken off in the Lincoln to call Cesare from a truck stop. The engines heaved and sighed; the massive trucks, lit up, sparkling and dazzling in the night, swarmed around her. She was silent, just listening to his voice. The night was cold with no moon and no stars. Knowing he was on the other end of the line was enough; she didn’t need to speak. “I love you,” he said. “Ti amo.” Ti amo is different from Ti voglio bene, which means I wish you well, but stronger, something a parent says to a child. Ti amo is reserved for lovers. Beth knew the subtleties, the moment in their relationship when one replaced the other. She adored the precision of his language.
Over the course of five years he had written her hundreds of letters. She had carried them back and forth from Italy to America, from apartment to apartment, from her father’s farm to her grandmother’s apartment, to her place on Sixth Avenue. She would carry them into adulthood, she would carry them for the rest of her life, stacked neatly in a box just the size to hold them closely, folded as he had folded them, tucked in their envelops, the flap licked by his tongue, a proof, a testimony, a declaration of the absolute. Ti amo sempre di piu, he wrote.
I will tell you the truth: I am andato for you, which in Italian means “I am out of my head for you,” which means “I am crazy for you,” which means “I am mad for you,” which means “I would do anything for you,” which means “you can rely on me,” which means “my life only makes sense when I think of you,” which means “you can do with me as you please,” which means “you and only you can decide my fate: if I’ll be happy or if I’ll have to live the rest of my life remembering the time when you loved me.”
Why do you love me? Her response consisted of that one question, written on a long blank page. She was not beautiful, she had no style, her sophistication had nothing to do with that of Italian girls, she did not understand his way of life. She could not see herself as he saw her. Generally, she did not lack confidence, but early on she loved him to the point where it was almost unbearable. Why? She would ask. It was her perpetual question asked over the years. She was aiming for logic. Simply: the love was hard to believe. Love is hard to believe. Why do you love me? What is love? Why do people find one love out of all the possible love? What are the forces, the attractions, the causes, the consequences? What are the requirements, the shapes, the sizes, the measurements? Explain it. Why you? Why me?
She met him on a small Greek island floating in the Aegean like a song. She had been eighteen years old. He was standing on some steps leading to a whitewashed apartment, struggling to speak with the landlady, to negotiate a price. The sun was on him, caught in his hair as if he could shake it free. Beth watched him, the gesturing of his hands, listened to the odd and unfamiliar words. She had just arrived on the island with two friends of hers. Friends of his were there too, laughing at his attempts to communicate. The old landlady was dressed in black, hunched over and thick around the waist. The sun lit him, Beth would remember that detail forever, the way the sun illuminated him as if for her benefit. And then the way he turned, as if he could feel her eyes on him. His eyes locked on her, for an instant only, but long enough to feel a shock a jab, a stab and then nothing was the same.
Copyright © 2006 by Martha McPhee
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.