issue 25: July - August 2001 

 | author bio

A Long View
Joan Wilking

Have you ever noticed? All the angels in the Uffizi have colored wings, rows of feathers lined up: red, yellow, blue, purple, green. The 16th century putti are round and pink-cheeked, casting their eyes heavenward into impossibly blue skies afloat with cottony clouds. Go back to the 13th century and Cimabue’s flyers look like withered corpses, rendered in shades of gangrene, staring into a future full of famine and disease.
      Rachel points these facts out to me and at first I want to believe she’s wrong. She is after all only fifteen. What does she know about angels, or paintings, or for that matter, Italy? She’s never been before. I know the color of the trees, those shapely umbrella pines balancing needle-covered plumes on tall naked trunks. I know the colors of Florence, Bologna and Venice, one pinker, one browner, one more orange than the other. And the light. I know the light. That light is something a young girl like Rachel doesn’t know.
      In Lido de Jesolo, a few days ago, she bought a bottle of wine, wandered out onto the beach and let four Italian boys pull at her clothes. The other students, in particular a couple of hysterical girls, turned it into a big thing.
      "Rachel was almost raped," one of them told the others and stepped back to watch the rumor spiral around the hotel lobby.
      "Nobody forced me to do anything," Rachel told the two teachers who had raced down the beach to rescue her.
      Her voice was colored by the wine she’d downed with her gelato. Her lips had turned bright red, her shirt was unbuttoned. Everyone could see her flesh spilling out of the black bra that was too tight for her pillowy chest.
      "They were cute," she said. "We just went for a walk. What’s the big deal?"
      She’s a big girl, all cheeks and lips and pink fleshy fingers. Her hair is a color somewhere between blonde and brown. She wears it up in a messy ponytail. Today her shirt is buttoned up, a mock camouflage print. Her denim overalls are so big that even with the pant legs rolled they puddle around her sneakers. She’s slung a dark blue canvas bag with a wide woven strap across her chest. It cuts a diagonal path between her breasts.
      "It’s your own fault," I say. "From now on you’re stuck with me."
      She humphs.
      "Don’t think I’m any happier about it than you are," I say.
      We’ve skipped the guided tour of Florence, left the guide, the other teachers and her classmates to set out on our own. Too many side streets for her to take off down. I don’t trust her not to disappear again. The gallery seems safe, full of guards. I haven’t given her a map. She squints at Botticelli’s Venus. Rachel’s eyes are bright blue marbles set in pads of fat, blue buttons on the plump cushion of her face.
      "Cunt on the half-shell," Rachel says.
      "What on the half-shell?"
      "You really shouldn’t use that word. That’s a terrible word."
      "Don’t you just hate those pretty girls. Look at her. That face. And the other one. Look at that dress. What if he’d painted someone who looked like me standing on that shell? Can you imagine that?"
      I don’t have an answer for her because she’s right again. I can’t imagine it. She’s such a shapeless thing, a young girl, full to overflowing with Pop Tarts and Big Macs.
      "I hate the breakfasts here," she told me this morning. "Who eats meat and cheese for breakfast? What’s with those dried-out rolls? I’d sell my soul for a Dunkin Donuts Honey Dip and a real cup of coffee."
      "You’re in a different culture. It’s only nine days. When in Rome do as the Romans do. And eat as the Romans eat."
      We step out of the Botticelli room into the long, high-ceilinged hall.
      "Look up," I say.
      Rachel tilts her head back.
      The ceiling is vaulted. Every surface, every curve of the arches which run down the full length, is decorated. Paintings within paintings within bands of elaborately detailed patterns. As we walk along she notices that each segment has a different theme.
      "Freaky," she says. "Just look at those things, part man, part woman, or bug or bat. Kind of creepy, don’t you think?"
      She’s talking about the creatures woven into the patterned bands.
      "I’ll bet each one has a meaning. They probably tell a story."
      "Looks like whoever painted them was on drugs. Whatever he was smoking, I don’t want any of it."
      "Forget what he painted for a minute and look at how he painted it, at how skillful the painter was."
      "Must have taken forever."
      We reach the end and turn left. There’s another hall, identical in length to the one we just walked down. The ceilings are painted in the same style. They look to be by the same hand. Rachel reaches into her bag and pulls out a pen and a small ring-bound pad. She flips the cover back and begins to sketch, careful to be sure her hand is shielding it so I can’t see. In my English class she draws all over her papers when she’s supposed to be writing. I know this but have never said anything to her.
      "I didn’t know you liked to draw?" I say.
      All day I've been trying to find some common ground. Something to make her step outside of herself. Last night she snuck off to a tattoo parlor she spotted on a side street. Because of her the rest of us were two hours late for dinner. This morning I caught her showing off her tattoo to some of the other girls so I showed her the one on my ankle. My crudely drawn butterfly is not nearly as nice as the delicately shaded orange tiger lily decorating her hip.
      "1968. Sailor Eddie’s at 9th and Arch in Philadelphia. I drank too much that night. Just like you." I didn’t tell her about the opiated hash. "The next day I woke up so scared I rushed to the E.R. at Pennsylvania Hospital for a gamma globulin shot."
      "A gamma what?"
      "For hepatitis."
      "Oh, I’ve been inoculated."
      "For A and B, you have. Not for C. There isn’t one for C and C is the one you get from unclean needles."
      Suddenly I want to scare her out of her wits. I want to tell her about my friend in L.A. who is on a liver transplant list. I want to tell her about my other friend who dropped dead in a bar in Connecticut. I want her to wish she hadn’t let some guy in a room on a third floor in a back alley in Florence stick a needle into her. But what’s the point? I remember being her age. She still thinks she’s going to live forever, and that prospect might be more dangerous for her than anything if it turns out she’s one of those kids who decides that forever is much too long.
      Rachel turns and looks at me.
      What does she see? A teacher? Someone who’s just along for the ride? Someone taking advantage of a cheap trip back to Italy? Nine days on planes and buses, seven cities, north to south, staying in three-star tourist hotels, a step up from my hosteling days but a step down from the house I rented in Umbria a few summers ago.
      See Rachel. See how the colors change, darker here, lighter there. Look at the light.
      My son said, "What, are you crazy? You’re going to chaperone a bunch of arrogant high school kids? You’ll hate that."
      He was right. The kids have been arrogant and petty but last night when we walked through Florence in the dark and turned the corner into the Duomo piazza, most of them opened their eyes and saw. That magnificent building, with its intricate surface, a patchwork, two tones of gray stone made them see something they’d never seen before. And Rachel had lingered. I watched her. She stood apart, staring up at it, detached, transported to another century. That was just before she took off to find the tattoo parlor.
      This morning when the art teacher who had been assigned to stick with her like glue looked longingly at the giggling group of kids getting ready to march off to view David’s marble penis I found myself volunteering to be Rachel’s keeper.
      "Thanks and good luck," the art teacher said. She rolled her eyes in the direction of where Rachel stood off to one side of the hotel lobby, her expression unreadable, alone.
      In the museum cafe Rachel can’t make up her mind. The pastas aren’t smothered in red. The tortellini is speckled green with pesto and the carbonara is iffy because of the pancetta and the peas. She settles on the Italian version of a sandwich, slices of ham and cheese between thick slabs of focaccia.
      "Don’t they sell real bread anywhere in this country?" she asks as I take my plate from the server’s hand.
      The restaurant is run cafeteria style and the young man who spooned the tortellini onto my plate tells us the same quaint story he probably tells all the tourists.
      "Ah, the tortellini," he says. "Can you guess where the name comes from."
      "Little hats?" I answer.
      "No, no, those are capellini. These are named for the Goddess Venus, her bellybutton."
      He stares at Rachel’s chest as he says it. She groans and readjusts the strap of her bag before lifting her tray. We find a table by a window overlooking the courtyard and sit.
      She spreads her napkin across her lap and waits for me to eat first before taking her first bite. Someone taught her manners. Who?
      From the other teachers I know there’s a father (he drinks), a stepmother ( they’re estranged), and a mother (long gone). Rachel, they say, is needy, looking for attention; all the things they say when they can’t figure out how to crawl into a kid’s head. What I‘m beginning to see is that Rachel is alone, not necessarily lonely, but definitely alone. There are other kids in the group who are overweight, and lord knows most of them, fat or thin, come from less than perfect families these days, but they try to fit in. Rachel stands apart. She disconnects and drifts along in a space all her own.
      "Did you see a sign for the bathroom?" she asks.
      I point. She stands, takes off her bag and sits it on the table before she leaves. Maybe I should go with her? What if she doesn’t come back? But I stay in my seat. If she’s going to bolt she wouldn’t have left the bag behind.
      The bag is big and bulging. A large pocketed flap covers the front. I can see the outline of her sketchbook through the thick fabric. I reach over and pull it out. When I flip the cover I’m back at the Duomo. Her drawing is delicate. It covers the page edge to edge. She’s caught the spirit of the place. The building is drawn in sharp focus. The figures in the foreground are blurred. She’s drawn them in motion. The one with a face, I recognize: a boy I’ve seen her chatting with.
      On the next page she’s copied one of the creatures on the gallery ceiling, part man, part bird. In an arcing script around its head she’s written, Italian angels fly on colored wings. Suddenly guilty I close the pad and slip it back into the bag.
      Rachel returns. Her cheeks are bright red as if she’s been outside. It’s winter and cold here, not as cold as at home in New England, but cold for Italy. When we left this morning she was jacketless, sweaterless, wouldn’t go back for one or the other. When she speaks I smell cigarette smoke.
      "Maybe I’ll buy some postcards, send one to my grandmother," she says. "I’m not sure why I should though. She doesn’t like me."
      "Oh, I’m sure that’s not true."
      "It’s true all right. She calls me fat."
      "I’m sure she doesn’t mean it that way."
      "What way?"
      "To be hurtful. Sometimes when people think they’re being constructive it comes out the wrong way."
      "She’s no toothpick herself. The sizes on the tags in the necks of her clothes all have Xs after them."
      I take a longer look at her. She’s padded but not what anyone could call obese. In another time she might have been considered a beauty.
      "Finish up," I say. "More galleries or the gift shop?"
      "The gift shop," she says and quickly drains the last of her soda.
      I find the rack of postcards first, vistas down each of the hallways and card after card of the painted ceilings, disappointing because the camera has flattened them out. We count thirty-five plus the three long views. I quickly convert the lire to dollars. The cards are about a dollar-fifty a piece times thirty-five. Too much for her to spend on postcards. Too much for me.
      The shop is almost empty. The only salesperson is turned away from us, sitting at the cash register, chatting on the phone. I look at Rachel. She looks at me. We both look back at the clerk. I don’t need words to know we are about to do something. We are about to do something we shouldn’t do simply because we can, Rachel and me. I watch as she begins to remove one card after the other from their slots. She starts at the top. I glance back at the clerk – still talking. I kneel down, and start pulling cards from the bottom until Rachel and I meet and clean out the middle row together. I hand her my stack. She adds them to hers and taps the edges against the palm of her hand like she’s straightening a deck of cards before she slips them next to her sketchbook in the front pocket of her bag. The clerk is still talking. Her voice rises and falls, carrying across the tall room.
      I know I should say something like, "Okay, that was cool, now let’s put them back," but instead I say, "Let’s get out of here."
      We take our time leaving the shop. Rachel looks through the posters. I lean over a jewelry case. The clerk is still on the phone. She doesn’t even look up when we walk past her and out the door.
      I retrieve my coat from the cloakroom. Rachel goes to the bathroom again. When she comes back we don’t speak; in fact we don’t speak again for the rest of the trip. We walk through the narrow streets, stopping to peer into the shop windows, jostled by other tourists. The Americans are easy to spot, like us, in sneakers and jeans. The Japanese are all smartly dressed and carry packages emblazoned with logos: Prada, Gucci, Versace. Every other block seems to have a Versace store. Rachel clutches her bag to her chest. In a small square we stop to listen to a trio of musicians - Peruvians playing Andean pipes - until we realize that the song, which I thought at first was a delicate native tune, is actually the theme to the movie Titanic. The streets eventually open out onto the Duomo square and I see the familiar flag of our tour guide floating over one of the many huddled groups of kids, waiting to march off to the next museum or monument or cathedral. Rachel rushes ahead of me to join them.
      From that afternoon on Rachel doesn’t misbehave. She figures out how to blend in. She sticks with the group, sits with the boy in the Duomo drawing; on the bus, in the trattorias, on the plane back to Boston. Every so often I think I catch her looking over at me but I’m never quite sure. When I get home there’s a pile of mail waiting. I flip through nine days of bills and circulars, a couple of promotional freebies, then there it is. A postcard with an Italian stamp and postmark. No message. Just a delicate drawing of a hand holding what you would think if you didn’t know better, was a fanned out hand of cards. I turn it over. It’s a long view down one of the Uffizi hallways.

2001 Joan Wilking

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That's me in the mirror...author bio

Joan Wilking lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Her short fiction has appeared in The Mississippi Review, In Posse, The Harvard Summer Review and Atlantic Unbound [links go direct to stories]. She has recently completed her first collection of short stories, Color Theory. joanwilking@mediaone.net

barcelona review 25           July - August  2001


Bill Broady: In This Block There Lives A Slag...
Pinckney Benedict: Rescuing Moon
Atima Srivastava: Dragons in E8
Joan Wilking: A Long View
Mercedes Abad: As I Fall
Anne Donovan: Hieroglyphics

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