They had fought the whole time: walking single-file on the narrow stone pathways by the River Arno, vital points lost to the revving of motorcycles and the high bright laughter of tourists; gesticulating with gelato spoons as they sat outside a café in the Piazza della Signoria; standing on the second floor of the Uffizi Gallery, lowering their voices before a bevy of Madonnas—(grim, grinning, stately, plump, aloof, aloft, alluring: Madonnas electric, dyspeptic, melancholic, myopic, dowdy, dreamy, and delicate)—ranging from buca to loggia; sputtering in and out of leather shops, through churches and palazzos, between market stalls of zucchini flowers and porcini mushrooms; waiting backstage to perform at the Teatro Comunale, the Verdi, or in the sacristy of Orsanmichele; pausing momentarily in convivial wonder over shared forkfuls of broad pasta with wild boar ragu, and chocolate hazelnut torta, distracted by the flavors and the atmosphere, the company and the candlelight, the corny accordion player outside playing “That’s Amore”, and the vendor of cut roses passing; resuming full force over bottles of Nozzole, chilled glasses of limoncello and tiny decorated cups of espresso; their voices becoming slurred, overlapping, lapsing for full minutes into drunken, recriminating silences; and later at night, preparing for bed, moody over washcloths and dental floss, cold cream and contact solution, tending to wine stains on cuffs, and lipstick removal, listening abstractly to the percussive sputter of Italian plumbing, the ardent, aggrieved rhythm of passing street conversation, and the distant brassy strains of Gershwin issuing from a tourist spot near the Ponte Vecchio—both of them weary of their own positions, forgetful of them, almost willing to give them up if it weren’t for the principle, the responsibility to truth, to reason, until the only recourse was a furious, fast fucking that wasn’t so much truce as it was transliteration, the struggle stripped clear of civilized discourse and smarty-pants articulations, stripped bare and rocking in almost catatonic frenzy, the yielding and the pushing, insinuating and subsuming, the pouring in and crying out, conceding nothing.
And what had they fought about? This wasn’t so easily determined. It was, of course, the continuation of the argument they’d been having the five years they’d been together, not so much an argument as an undertow, a countercurrent, the same argument that runs swift and dark beneath every romance—the argument against. An irrefutable movement, after the tidal knocking, closer, the lulling waves of intimacy, the moony directional pull toward the same soft shore, gravity’s shadow impulse—away.
From deep inside her coma, Alma’s brow furrows. Even unconscious, riven with disease, drug-embattled, intravenous-fed, she frowns at the imprecision. Because what they had fought about had been entirely singular.
They had been performing piano trios with Archie that summer. Daniel’s Italian was atrocious and Alma winced whenever he opened his mouth. “It’s not grazie to rhyme with Nazi,” she had to tell him repeatedly. “It’s grazie-eh.”
“To rhyme with Nazi-eh?” said Daniel.
It wasn’t that Alma spoke Italian fluently, or that her vocabulary progressed much beyond his, but she was proud of her pronunciation, which she took painstaking care to reproduce correctly. She fancied herself something of a linguistics expert by virtue of the fact that she had had to learn English at an early age, and because Daniel, by comparison, was such a slouch. “You know what I love about Italian?” said Alma. “I love that everything has a gender.”
Daniel frowned. “How do they decide if something is masculine or feminine? It seems completely arbitrary to me.”
Alma held up her spoon. “Paolo says you just know. This, for example, il cucchiaio, is masculine.” She pointed to her cup of espresso. “And this, la coppa, is feminine.”
“You see? Completely arbitrary.”
“Really?” Alma opened her mouth and slowly, deliberately, licked the back of il cucchiaio with the tip of her tongue, then slowly, deliberately inserted it inside la coppa. She smiled. “I think it’s sexy.”
“You think Paolo is sexy.” Daniel was trying to sound casual, but Alma heard the anger, that masked the vulnerability, that posed as judgment. She wasn’t in the mood tonight to reassure him.
She brought the cup to her lips. “Paolo is our host,” she said.
“He’s Italian,” said Daniel, doubtfully.
“Precisely,” Alma said.
Paolo, the impresario, the opera composer, cosmopolitan, the disarmingly charming Paolo. Handsome in a tux, tall and dark, with wild antennae eyebrows and thick waves of hair that never seemed to muss or move, reminiscent of Michelangelo’s David. Paolo, who loved all things American, including the New York Yankees, cheeseburgers, and Bruce Springsteen. People said he was a prince, one of the last of a long line of Florentine royalty that included a Medici or two and at least one Pope, and it wasn’t hard to believe it, though he graciously waved aside any direct inquiries into his ancestry. “My dear,” he said, in his charmingly disarming English, “you see the problem in Italy, we look too much to the past. I like your American way better. Look to the future!”
Daniel was naturally suspicious of Paolo, in the way that he was suspicious of any man to whom Alma paid more than cursory attention. “I think he’s got Yellow Fever,” he told her after they’d first been introduced.
“You think any man who flirts with me has Yellow Fever,” Alma said. “What does that say about me? That no man could possibly just find me attractive?” Daniel had taken Alma’s hand. “No, baby, I’m saying that every man who sees you, comes down with a case of malaria.”
Alma and Daniel on the terrace of Paolo’s palazzo in the Oltrarno, newly arrived from a private concert in the Basilica di Santa Trinita. The guests are mostly stuffed shirts and women with ponderous bosoms, and the waiters, in white dinner jackets and black bow ties, circulate among them with service trays of Prosecco and Chianti.
“Uh-oh, don’t look now, Count Luigi at twelve o’clock,” whispers Daniel.
“Shh,” says Alma, cuffing him on the arm, “he’ll hear you.”
“Ciao there, Paolo!” Daniel says, loudly, extending his hand.
Paolo nods, barely deigning to shake.
“Buonasera,” Alma corrects Daniel. “Sorry,” she says to Paolo.
“What’d I do?” Daniel says.
“You were too familiar,” says Alma.
“It is all right,” Paolo says, shrugging, “we are all friends here.”
“Americans don’t understand levels of formality,” Alma explains. “In Korean, the honorifics are in the verb endings. You say kahmsamnida to your elders, kahmupsumnida to your equals, kumupda with children.”
“And it means, this word?”
Alma feels Daniel’s anger like a furnace beside her. It fuels her own, and their heat rises and rouses something in Paolo.
“Ahh,” says Paolo, “fascinating!” He turns to Daniel, gesturing minutely with his wine glass. “You Americans have no honorifics, I think?” he says.
“No, we’re a democracy.”
Alma shoots Daniel a look. “Americans have no respect for their elders,” she says.
“Americans give respect where respect is due,” says Daniel. “And anyway, what’s all this ‘Americans this, Americans that’ bullshit? You haven’t lived in Korea since you were four.”
Alma ignores him, smiling steadfastly into Paolo’s cool, patrician face. They are in sync, allied against Daniel and all his fatuous compatriots, and the thrill of her small betrayal blossoms in Alma like a night-blooming flower. Daniel’s pale Irish complexion, freckled lightly along the bridge of his nose, seems too fair, too telling, in this historied city of deadly plots and shifting alliances; it simply gives too much away.
“There are some people I wish you to meet, cara,” Paolo says now, steering Alma away by the elbow. His own expression is hooded, eyes cast down, and though he speaks to her, he seems to be addressing Daniel who, pink-cheeked and scowling, stares after Alma with a cast-iron hatred that causes her, for the first time that night, to sense the danger of the game she is playing.
“Oh, Signora Lee,” a grating American voice cries out, “We just loved your performance!”
“Brava!” someone calls.
* * * *
“Why did you do that?”
“Why did I do what?”
“Let’s see…embarrass me in front of Paolo. Act like a total bitch. Ignore me all night like I’m nobody to you.”
Alma looks at herself in the mirror, at Daniel behind her. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, babe,” she says.
“Oh, cut the crap!” Daniel brings his fist down on the nightstand a little harder than he intended, causing it to jump off the floor. Alma flinches. “You know exactly what I’m talking about, babe. Why don’t you just fuck him, and get it over with?”
“Me!” Alma throws her hairbrush across the bureau. “You’re the ones who act like you want to fuck each other, always circling around sniffing each other’s assholes.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know. You’ve read D. H. Lawrence.”
“That’s sick.” Daniel twists the elastic band of his wristwatch but does not remove it. “That’s just—”
“—because we both know you’re into some freaky shit.”
“Oh, that’s…!” Daniel claps his hands. “Me? When you’re the one who, who…” He stares at her for a moment. “Okay then, why not a threesome? You, me, and Machiavelli.”
Alma’s mouth feels devoid of moisture, as though she could spit sand. “He doesn’t want to sleep with me. He just likes to get your goat.”
Daniel shakes his head. “Oh, come on! He had his hands all over you tonight.”
Daniel takes a step toward Alma, his hands on his crotch. “‘Cara! Bella! Come here, cara!” He pitches his voice high, rolling his r’s, exploding his l’s, imitating Paolo’s open, insinuating diction. “Bella, bella, cara mia, bella!”
“Here it is, cara. I call it my ba-ton!”
Alma stares at Daniel who is holding his cock in his hands, sticking it out from his unzipped pants. It’s partially erect, and he bobs it up and down in exaggerated three-quarter time, and Alma has to admit that he’s nailed the accent, captured the effeminate lilt of European refinement. It’s late and she feels herself losing the edge of her drunken belligerence; she is exhausted from performing earlier, and then the party after. It has been a long day. And here now is Daniel with his penis out, mincing about the room, conducting his idiot’s symphony, and the only possible response is to laugh, and once she starts, Daniel joins in, until they can’t stand up from laughing so hard, and fall onto the bed, clutching their bellies, wiping their tears, and Daniel goes soft and grows hard again. Laughter ceasing he grabs Alma around the waist and pulls her under him—as Paolo still or as himself, Alma isn’t certain, nor does she know which arouses her more, though she is aroused. He pulls her panties down, grabs her ass where it’s fleshiest, and pushes his way inside her, until she can feel his pelvic bone slamming against her, bam, bam—she pictures a car hitting a retaining wall, something hard, something fast, something out of control—and here she is coming, arching up to meet him, reaching back to pull him deeper, fuck me, baby harder, like a porn star queen, and she is not at all sorry that she has capitulated, or that she has made him suffer; she is glad of it, if it has led to this, this igniting, and whatever else Alma felt, or previously thought—because she is not thinking now—she is most certainly no longer mad.
And in her dreams that night, she is held aloft, carried in strong arms, hot against her back, a calloused hand pressed against her backside. At her feet, a man crouches, one arm flung up in lamentation. She is terrified, but also excited. It is akin to exultation, laced with contempt. For it is thrilling to be aligned with the victor, held up like a prize, exalted, while the weak and deceived are left to gesture in the dirt. The Sabine women bore Romulus a nation, and even in her dream, Alma smiles at the notion.
The Fetishist is an unpublished and unfinished novel that mom began writing in the late 2000s.