Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Welcome to your Wednesday Morning Essay!

Today we bring you Sheila Kohler author of six books including Cracks and Crossways (see bottom for full bio). Don't be fooled by the third person. This is an essay, a powerful one by a powerful writer.

by Sheila Kohler
This essay originally appeared in New Letters Vol 71. No. 2

Every day the sisters cross the Tiber to read Dante. Every afternoon they take two buses from their apartment in the elegant Parioli district to reach the teacher’s home in the dark, ancient streets of the Trastevere. The teacher’s building is hard to find in the narrow winding streets, and the first few times, they become confused and lose their way, while men whistle, jeer, and jostle them. The teacher has been recommended by the school where they studied Italian in the spring but which is now closed, a school also called Dante Alighieri.

They are in Rome to learn Italian and to see the Olympic Games, which are held here this year. It is 1960. Perhaps, too, their mother is not loathe to leave South Africa for a spell after the Sharpeville massacre. She has several South African visitors whom the sisters are expected to entertain, visitors who have come for the games, mostly dull, heavy set men who sit around their living room, drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes. The older sister who has a driver’s licence and now knows the way, is asked to drive the visitors around the city in her mother’s small white Lancia with the red leather seats. Sometimes, the mother makes the older sister drive them as far as Florence or Sienna, which she does for the her mother in the heat
without complaint.

They are also here to be close to Enrico, the Roman, who is in love with the younger sister and has persuaded their mother to stay on in Rome and rent a furnished apartment with the small garden and hire a half-mad maid who, like the mother, cannot cook. Otherwise they might be in Germany, where their father’s family came from, reading Goethe, or in France, reading Flaubert. Their mother is a widow of independent means and can go anywhere she wishes, and she wishes her daughters to learn foreign languages, as she speaks none herself.

They leave their ground-floor apartment in the early afternoon, right after luncheon. It is July. They set off in the heat of the day, leaving their mother to rest on her bed in a light gown with the shutters drawn on the small, sweet-smelling garden, where the big magnolia tree blooms. They have to walk to the bus stop and wait. Not many buses pass at this time of day, and those that do are often crowded. The sisters hang onto the straps, swaying back and forth, in their pale summer dresses, hemmed in by Roman men who seem for the most part to be the ones out and about at this hour. They have little compunction about taking advantage of the situation.

It is the older sister who, at nineteen, is particularly plagued by these men. Though the younger sister is sometimes accosted in the street if she is on her own, if her sister is with her, the men on the bus don’t give her a second glance. The younger sister, at seventeen, is not as plump or as fair-skinned or as blond and blue-eyed as the older one, who possesses the type of Nordic beauty that appeals irresistibly to the Romans. Or is it this that attracts them to her? What is it about the older sister that makes the men choose her, and only her? The younger sister wonders why her older sister attracts men in this indiscriminate way, as though she gives off an
alluring scent that trails behind her like a train. She cannot take a step in the street without someone calling out or whistling or even trying to touch her as she goes past, as though they need to feel her to make sure she is real. They think she is English or German or perhaps Dutch but above all different, foreign, free, loose, infinitely desirable.

“It’s only because you are a foreigner,” Enrico tells her. “They don’t mean any harm,” he explains. “It is only meant as a compliment. The Romans may be vulgar, but they love women, all women.” He tells the sisters laughingly that the ancient Latin initials they see on all the walls
and in the pavements, SPQR, actually stand for Sono Porci Questi Romani, they are pigs, these Romans, but they are not dangerous. She would do better to ignore them or better still, just to laugh at them, but this sister is not able to laugh.

“How do they know I am foreigner? There are plenty of Italian girls with blond curls and blue eyes, and they don’t call out to them or pinch their bums,” she replies with exasperation. It is true, the Italian men seem drawn particularly to her well-sculpted posterior.

“It’s from the shoes,”Enrico says with his gaze on the ground.

“But my shoes are Italian!” she exclaims.

The older sister does not like this attention. She does not like it at all. It makes her extremely uncomfortable. It is a sort of torment for her. She stiffens, turns puce, flies into a rage, or hurls insults. She says it makes her feel as though the men think she is vulgar, whorish, stained in some awful way. She says she feels as though she’s wearing a scarlet letter on her chest. She hates it when they leer and whistle at her and call out “O, che bella straniera!” or worse, “Che bella bambina!” which makes her sound like a child. When they go even further and shout out, “Che bella bambola!” giving the sensuous word a particularly vulgar Roman roll, she is incensed.

The trouble is, the younger sister thinks, her sister does look somewhat like a doll. Her large, deep-blue eyes have a doll-like, surprised expression, as though she were seeing everything for the first time. Her long, thick, dark lashes, which she often fingers, look fake. Her porcelain skin is impossibly smooth and never suffers from spots, as her own still does. Her high color looks as if it were painted on her cheeks. Even her arms and hands look smooth, waxen, doll-like.

Indeed, the younger sister remembers how they used to play a game as children, hidden at the bottom of the garden in the high bamboo, called “Doll.” One of them would pretend to be a doll and have to do exactly what the other one ordered her to do. Surely the Roman men cannot know this?

The older sister walks with her gaze cast down like a nun. She stalks along stiffly, angrily, through the streets, clutching her thick tome of Dante’s Divina Commedia to her breasts as if he, and only he, could protect her. She wears an old, ugly straw hat, the brim pulled down on either side to cover her soft blond curls, long-sleeved shirts under her sleeveless summer dresses, long skirts, and heavy, closed shoes in the heat. She asks the pharmacist to give her something to make her skin paler.

“You want to take the roses from your cheeks!” the pharmacist exclaims, appalled. He leans across the counter and glances at her curves and says,“What on earth would you want to do that for?” She has her reasons. She wears powder, no lipstick. But none of it makes any difference. It is as if the men still smell her foreignness, her femininity, her indiscriminate desire. Yet the older sister maintains she hates men, Italian men especially, except for Dante.

The younger sister, too, at seventeen, is not sure what she thinks of men. She has never been in love with one. She wonders if she will ever be in love the way Dante was with Beatrice, who sends Virgil to rescue him in the underworld. The closest she has ever come to feeling something of this sort was in boarding school in the dark of the dormitory, lying in the arms of a girl. She has let several boys kiss her and press their heated bodies against hers, in the hot dark up the back of koppies, and she has been filled with vague and feverish longings. But for what, exactly? Does she
really want a man to penetrate her in what her mother calls her most private part, her heart of hearts? What would happen if she were to allow someone to violate her in that way?

She is not in love with Enrico, though she consents to go out with him. She allows him to dance with her at his friends’ villas. She lets him lead her out into the cypress-scented gardens of Roman villas and kiss her, his slim body trembling against hers in the shadows of the thin trees. His mouth is fresh, and his lips taste sweet.

Enrico is not vulgar. He does not whistle at girls. He is a Roman aristocrat, though a poor one. He spends his Sundays walking through the Vatican in a dark suit to keep an eye on things, an honour reserved for Roman aristocrats, he tells the sisters. Together the younger sister and Enrico walk for hours through the streets of Rome, gazing at the lovely Temple of the Vestal Virgins, putting their hands into the Bocca della Verita, strolling around the Forum or visiting Enrico’s Roman friends in the Roman countryside, who are richer than he is and have villas with vineyards surrounding them. Rome and the Romans are all Enrico has to offer her.

Her mother would like her to marry Enrico, in part because he runs errands for her. He has dark, slightly protuberant eyes, a fine straight nose, almost pencil-thin at the tip, and thick sensuous lips. He is a polite and cultured young man from an ancient family. He has already read Dante, Tasso, Leopardi, and even D’Annunzio, though he is not much older than the younger sister. He is also kind and, young as he is, has natural tact.

It is Enrico who accompanies their mother when even her elder daughter refuses, too embarrassed to perform this service, when the mother has to visit the doctor for a mid-life complaint. The sisters remain at home and imagine the scene and giggle: Enrico waving his fine hands and translating for their mother, telling the doctor in his elegant Italian and with many circumlocutions about her menopausal itch in an unmentionable place. The mother says Enrico would make a good husband, as he is such a devoted son.

At twilight, in the small garden that Enrico waters every evening for their mother, the younger daughter turns to him. She watches him watering the rhododendron bushes carefully for her mother and is on the point of saying she loves him. But she knows it is not the truth. The truth is important to her. It is more important to her to find the truth than a man. She reads Dante to find out the truth about life and death and love. Every afternoon, she braves the Roman men and takes the two crowded buses in the heat of the day to reach the Trastevere to read Dante.

When the sisters finally arrive at their destination, red in the face and sweating from the climb up the four flights of stairs, the teacher greets them warmly. She is a dark-haired woman with dark eyes, which look small behind thick glasses. She has a little moustache on her upper lip. She always wears black, though it is not clear if this indicates mourning. Does she have someone to mourn: a husband, a lover, a father?

She always looks surprised by their appearance on her doorstep, as though she cannot quite believe they will continue to come, day after day, bearing the envelope with the money their mother has given them to pay for the lesson. Clearly, she is delighted but a little puzzled by these two South African girls, who come every afternoon through the summer months, when everyone else is at the beach, carrying cool cash to pay her to lead them through the dark thicket of Dante’s words and to shine light on them. She is their Virgil. She would understand if they were trying to pass an exam or qualify for some higher course of study, but they have no such intention.

Their mother has never encouraged them to continue with their studies. She expects they will get married and have children, as she has done. When the younger sister brought her report cards home from boarding school, where she excelled at English, history, and Latin, her mother would shake her head warningly and say, “You don’t want to be too clever for your own good, you know. Too much cleverness might be dangerous.” Her mother seems to feel that clever people are either mad or in danger of becoming so, that clever people do not advance in life. She tells the girls about their father, a successful timber merchant who would never hire anyone he thought too
clever. “He always engaged the moderately intelligent ones,” she says and nods her head sagely in agreement with her dead husband. When the younger sister suggests that she might like to have a profession--become a writer or an actress, perhaps, her mother says, “What would you ever want to work for, dear?”

The teacher, who has worked all her life and now, even in her retirement, is obliged to continue to give lessons to supplement her income, receives foreign girls in her small, ugly apartment, crowded with heavy, dark furniture with claws for feet. Her ancient mother, also clad in black, totters in with the tea tray. She offers the girls tea with lemon and pastries dusted with icing sugar and coos at them. They are hungry and thirsty from their long voyage across the city and from all the unwanted and embarrassing attention they have received, and though they know the teacher is poor, they drink thirstily and eat several pastries, wiping the sugar from their lips.

While they eat, the teacher questions them about their homeland, the animals, the heat. She seems to think they live in a dangerous, wild place, inhabited by fierce animals like the one where Dante found himself at the start of his voyage. So they tell her what she wants to hear about their trips to the game reserves, about the lions and the spotted leopards with what Dante calls their “gay skin.”

Then they begin to read the text.They can already recite long passages by heart, and they have begun to speak archaic Italian, using the vocabulary from the thirteenth century rather than the twentieth, which makes Enrico laugh. They intone rapidly, running the words together, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, che la diritta via era smarrita,” believing, of course, that it is their mother and probably their teacher who are in the middle of their lives and in a
fearsome place, where the true road is lost, and not they or certainly not
Enrico. They believe many roads and infinite possibilities lie open to them.

Years later, the younger sister, who will be the only one left alive, will realize that they were wrong. Their mother would outlive both her elder daughter and her younger daughter’s suitor, who were both, indeed, in the middle of their lives. The younger sister would never marry Enrico, dying as he did of a rapid cancer that ripped through his fine frame in a couple of months.

The older sister never reached forty. Her body was smashed up, broken into pieces, as she had feared it might be, by a man. She was shattered like a discarded doll, her fine wrists and ankles snapped on a deserted road in the dark. She was murdered by her jealous husband, a South African surgeon, who drove her into a telephone pole.

All her life, the younger sister continues to see her sister, sitting upright beside her at the dining room table in the Trastevere, blinking her bewildered eyes and fingering her dark, thick lashes and reciting Dante with her small, waxy hand on her heart.

Sheila Kohler is the author of six novels: “The Perfect Place,”(Knopf,1989)“The House on R Street,” (Knopf, 1994) and “Cracks” (Zoland,1999) “Children of Pithiviers,” (Zoland, June, 2001) and “Crossways”( Ontario Review, 2004) and “The Invention of Happiness” (in press) three collections of short stories: “Miracles in America,” (Knopf, 1990) and “One Girl” (Helicon Nine, 1999) “Stories from another World”(Ontario Review, fall, 2003) Kohler has been awarded the O.Henry, (1988) the Open Voice(1991), and the Smart Family Foundation prize(October, 2000) and The Willa Cather Prize judged by William Gass for “One Girl,” and the Antioch Review prize
(2004)“Cracks” has been optioned by Killer Films and Working Title 2 three times. Her story “Africans” was recorded and read at Symphony Space and translated into Japanese.

Kohler’s work has been translated and published widely abroad by Gallimard, France; Klett-Cotta, Germany; Shinchosa, Japan; Distribuidora Rekord, Brazil; Querido, Holland; Jonathan Cape and Bloomsbury in England and Penguin India. It will appear in Hebrew.

Her short fiction has appeared in:The Antioch Review, The American Voice, The Best American Short Stories ,1999 , The Bellevue Literary Review, Bomb, The Columbia Magazine; DoubleTake, Fiction, Five Points, The KGB Reader, The Massachusetts Review, New Letters, The Ontario Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Quarterly, Redbook, Story and The Yale Review. and will appear in Ecotone; Boulevard and The Mississipi Review Her non-fiction has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Bomb magazine, The New Leader, on Amazon. com. in O magazine, Salmagundi and in New Letters.

Sheila Kohler has taught creative writing at Bennington College, City College, The Chenango Valley Conference at Colgate, Sarah Lawrence, The New School, Suny Purchase, the West side YMCA, and in Montolieu She was a fellow at the New York Public Library Center for Scholars and Writers, 2003-4.


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