They were as light and fluffy as the small white clouds that floated across an otherwise spotless blue sky, of which Raffie and Kip had an unobstructed view from the balcony where they feasted on the fried scallops, clams, shrimp, calamari, and other seafood on the frittura platter. Raffie’s father and his new wife were treating them to the first-class Pensione del mare’s lunch while the parents went out on a tour of the islands. Raffie and Kip, who were living cheaply in a house without window glass in Positano, relaxed and enjoyed the hotel’s luxury. Earlier, they’d spent some time on the parents’ bed, having fabulous sex, as always. That was what kept them together, in Raffie’s view, although Kip had asked her to marry him and was still waiting for an answer. He thought he’d heard “Yes!” but that was at the acme of Raffie’s orgasm so she didn’t count it. He did, however. He was one to hold her to promises of any kind. He also held grudges, small and large, but was himself free of guilt.
This could probably be attributed to his condition as a manic-depressive, which Raffie had learned about from the very knowledgeable French gynecologist they’d consulted together when they were still living in Paris. Dr. St. Claude thought Raffie might have an ectopic pregnancy because of her excessively bloody periods. Kip had asked to privately discuss with the doctor a bothersome irritation in the folds of his foreskin. Dr. St. Claude’s manner was smooth and elegant, and he was not in the least ruffled at having two unmarried people with sex-related problems in his office. After all it was Paris, even though the year was nineteen-sixty, too early for the sexual revolution to have taken hold. Dr. St. Claude was outrageously handsome with a wide forehead and a widow’s peak from which thick dark hair was combed in lustrous waves from his face. Later, when the pair was drinking un esprès at a café on the plaza near the doctor’s fancy Right Bank office, Raffie blushed at the thought that he must have imagined correctly that they fucked day and night, and hence ended up in his office with their respective ailments.
Her pregnancy test was negative and months later, in Naples, an Italian doctor overdosed her on male hormones to stem the menstrual bleeding, and she ended up with a fine dark down on her upper lip and a few curly black hairs, like her pubic hairs, around her nipples. But these were minor annoyances compared to her worsening situation with Kip. He was declining into the depressive phase of his illness and she felt that he was dragging her down with him. Furthermore, she missed her husband Gianni and she wanted to go back to New York to repair their marriage. The repairs were really up to Gianni since he was the one who had initiated the separation one breezy June evening while they were standing side by side chopping raw vegetables for a pasta primavera in the large comfortable space that was both kitchen and dining room in their East Ninth Street railroad flat. A tall window opened onto the fire escape and the back yards below, the old maple dining table and chairs from Raffie’s father’s country attic stood by the window, and a handsome built-in cabinet with glass doors lined the back wall next to a large working fireplace. The floor was painted red, the trim Dutch blue. The bathroom was off the kitchen and held only a small bathtub, and the wood-covered wash tub adjoined the kitchen sink, as was typical in turn-of-the-century apartments. The front room, their living room, was large and sunny, and faced on the street. The room next to the bedroom was their shared study.
Gianni asked for the separation in the same tone of voice, with the same inflection he used when he asked her to pour olive oil into the heated skillet for the vegetables or to put the pasta into the boiling water in the stock pot. Gianni was Italian from Tuscany and he had the profile of an Etruscan warrior, including the classical high-bridged nose. His hair was a sandy blond, and his skin fair and slightly freckled. He often began a sentence with “Dunque” or “Now then,” at the same time energetically rubbing his hands together, which always smelled clean, just washed with the mild soap he preferred to the highly scented, fancy soaps Raffie would otherwise have bought.
“Dunque” was how he began the sentence in which he’d asked Raffie if she would consider a temporary separation. First, she undid her hair, which she’d pinned up in one of “her hundreds of,” as Gianni said, referring to her collection of barrettes and combs. Why these annoyed him she didn’t know but they did, possibly because she left her hair ornaments here and there when she did and undid her hair, depending on her state of mind. A change in mental state was always signaled by a change in the state of her hair, up or down. In this case it was down. She put her barrette on the counter next to the cutting board on which she’d been slicing mushrooms and went into their bedroom, the second from the kitchen of the two middle rooms in the flat, a small room, consisting entirely of their bed. The room was open on both sides and had a window on each of the two sides that faced on the adjoining rooms. For privacy while she cried, she put a red and white embroidered throw pillow from the bed over her head. Gianni came in and sat beside her on the bed. He liked to stroke her long kinky-curly hair. He stroked it away from her ear so he could whisper to her. She pulled away from him and tried to cover her ear with the pillow. He persisted. He said:
“Raphaella, amore, we’ve been together forever, I need to know what it’s like to be on my own before we continue our life together. Just a few months, time for me to get to know myself as a separate person….”
Gianni spoke English with a British accent. He’d learned English in liceo in Italy from British-accented professors, then come to the United States for college, which was where he and Raffie had met, at the end of their sophomore year at Middlebury College in Vermont. Skiing, on cross-country skis, was where Gianni proposed. They were skiing in the woods after a night’s snowstorm, when fresh snow was on the ground and light snow was still falling, and occasional and partial sun showing so that the temperature was not even eight degrees Fahrenheit. When they sat on a tilted log for lunch, careful not to put their sandwiches on the downward incline, they wore the khaki army half-gloves with the fingers cut off that Raffie carried in her pack. Gianni was delighted with these, as with Raffie’s other mountaineering equipment, the ten essentials her father had taught her always to carry in her pack. Gianni was new to back country skiing. He’d skied the Alps, however, and was a good outdoorsman. Gorp was another pleasure Raffie introduced him to. Sticky mess that it was, Gianni loved the handfuls of raisins, peanuts, M&Ms, and too many other ingredients for the stuff to have a coherent taste which, Gianni said, was the beauty of it.
When they got to their destination, having traversed up a mountainside, skied down a bowl and up the other side, and reached one of many low peaks in the range, they stopped to rest and look out over the Green Mountains and valleys. It was chill and windy, but the view took their breath from them. They drank water from Gianni’s water bottle. They stomped the snow off their skis. They took one more sweeping look at the view and prepared to go down. Gianni said to wait, he had something to say. He reached into the pocket of his wool knickers and took out a little box, which he popped open as he bent one knee in the snow. He took Raffie’s left hand and put the ring on her third finger.
It was a signal moment in her life. She cried. He cried. They hugged each other. They chattered away in Italian until they realized they were freezing. Raffie covered her newly ringed hand with her mittens and they skied like demons down the mountain. The diamond and sapphire ring had been his grandmother’s, and her mother’s before that. It fit Raffie just as it was. They were married at the end of the school year at an old synagogue in Florence. Raffie’s father, a widower, and her Aunt Rose and Cousin Jessica were there. The rest of the guests were Gianni’s family. Afterward there was a dinner on the terrace of a restaurant unknown to tourists and populated only by Italians. Raffie translated for her family, and they all got slightly drunk and danced in mismatched couples — Raffie with her cousin Jessica, Gianni with Raffie’s father, and finally Raffie and her father, both of whom had forgotten that they were supposed to lead off with the first dance.
Because both families were secular Jews, no one said it but all the older relatives were pleased that Gianni and Raffie had chosen within the faith. Gianni’s mother, who was frail and died soon after the wedding, put her hand lightly on that of Raffie’s father and whispered to him, “It is good not to dilute — you know, they will have Jewish children.” Raffie’s father quickly took a swallow of his champagne, which went down the wrong way. He had to be thumped on the back by the guest standing next to him.
• • •
Kip was having a resurgence of his manic high that day on the Pensione del mare’s balcony, feasting on the delectable seafood and making loud ahs and ums each time he picked an especially tasty piece.
“This is octapussy, Chèrie,” he said.
“How do you know?”
“I know pussy when I taste it.”
“Oh, shut up, Kip.”
“At least I’m not telling you you’ve just eaten rocky mountain oysters,” he said.
“You know what? You can be a real pain,” Raffie said.
“Or that there were bugs in your watercress salad.”
“That’s enough, Kip!”
These were real dining events from Paris evenings that Raffie preferred not to remember. Kip liked to tease when he was happy. He liked jokes. In Paris he’d had a small entourage of admiring young American friends who accompanied him to bars, where he sang exotic French troubadour songs for tips in his beautiful reedy tenor. Kip was also beautiful to look at. He was a small delicate man with dark eyes and thin lips. He wore a closely trimmed Clark Gable mustache. Gay men looked at him twice on the street and tried to pick him up in cafés. At the height of his mania, his American friends would loyally stay out drinking with him when he’d finish singing and bring him home to Raffie at two, three, or four in the morning. She sat up in bed, rumpled and furious, to watch them standing in a line at the foot of the bed while Kip sang a song. Kip would present her with a milles feuilles, her favorite pastry, bought fresh from a baker he’d barged in on before the bakery was open. He’d say in his sweetest voice, which was indeed sweet, “Forgive me, Chèrie.”
He made nicknames for her of sexual words, which he called her in a low voice when they were out in public and in a regular speaking voice in private. Kip’s French was so expert he might almost have been taken for a native speaker. Raffie’s French was good but her Italian was much better. Kip said you couldn’t be taken seriously in any language unless you used the subjunctive with ease. Raffie had given this some thought and decided he was right. She’d heard him say, in French, “What do you want me to do?” using a forceful subjunctive. Literally, it was, “What do you want that I do?”
Kip was Greek-American. His last name was Kiprianos, his first name,
Christopher. He introduced himself as “Chris” to people whom he didn’t want to meet again or people he wanted to confuse about his identity since everyone who knew him at all called him “Kip.” His middle name was Alan and he used “Alan Chappelle” as an alias. Kip was in a line of work, when he did work, that required an alias. These were facts about Kip that Raffie didn’t know until after she’d moved in with him in his Paris apartment on Plâce de la contrascarpe in the Fifth Arondissement in a building on which the letters Hôtel des grands sports were written in faded letters and from which the “s” at the beginning of “sports” was missing.
The apartment had no running water so Kip had constructed a hose in the kitchen sink to which he attached the pail he filled from the spigot in the hall. That way they were able to have a makeshift faucet for cooking over the one alcohol burner. Most nights Kip cooked chops, pork or lamb, on a grill over the fire in the fireplace. He seasoned the chops, Greek style, with olive oil and sprigs of fresh oregano from the open market down the street from the Plâce. They ate well. The toilet in the hall was Roman style — a hole in the floor over which you had to squat — which Raffie detested. But other than that, the apartment was pleasing. They sat on a sofa pulled up to the front window overlooking the Plâce, their faces in the sun on sunny days, and ate gooey Camembert on fresh bread with apples or pears for lunch. They washed in cold water at the sink, and once a week paid a dollar for a bath in gray lukewarm bathwater down the hall.
None of this really mattered because the arrangement was temporary as far as Raffie was concerned. She was on furlough, with a proscribed ending at which time she would return to Gianni in New York. She’d had a foretaste, however, of the difficulty of extricating herself from this relationship with Kip. It had been her plan to study in Italy, with only a brief stay in Paris to brush up on her French, when she ran into Kip and renewed their liaison. Kip had been a student at Middlebury too, until he was expelled for bad behavior, including cutting classes, insulting professors, drinking in the dorm, and having a girl in his room overnight. Raffie was that girl. For this, she felt somewhat beholden to him. And when he learned from a mutual friend that she was in Paris and turned up in the lobby of her hotel at midnight in December, wheedling her into going with him to have onion soup at Les Halles, she said she would.
Kip supported himself with the shady business of selling Bibles to American servicemen stationed in bases in France and Germany. It was shady because unapproved vendors were not allowed in the barracks to sell to directly to servicemen. Kip went at night and talked his way in or maybe he bribed the guard on duty, Raffie never knew the details.
She waited in the car, an old Citroen, in which Kip sat tilted back in the driver’s seat and dwarfed by the dimensions of the car. But she hated those trips, except when they traveled through the countryside of the Loire valley or the Black Forest in Germany. Kip would return to the car with a greasy hamburger and fries from the canteen, crowing about a sale he’d made to a slow-witted lout of a soldier. But as he crumpled the paper the food had been wrapped in, he admitted that he felt sorry for the soldier he’d bilked out of money from his meager pay for a Bible he wouldn’t read.
“But too bad, it’s a job, and it’s the only kind of work I can get as a foreigner,” he said.
One time they took a night train to a base in the north of Germany and slept in couchettes. Kip insisted that Raffie climb into his couchette with him and eat the sandwiches they’d brought, both turning this way and that to get comfortable in the narrow space, whispering loudly, laughing, and annoying the other passengers, even feeling each other up under the blanket. Finally a conductor came in with his flashlight and ordered one of them to get down to the lower couchette.
In a hotel in Germany, the desk clerk refused to give them a room together because their last names were different on their passports. In his excellent German, Kip persuaded the evening desk clerk, a stout, stern woman with deep vertical lines over her upper lip and small eyes with none or few visible lashes, to change her mind. Raffie had on her glasses so that she could sign her name in the register and when she looked up, the woman was examining her features. The woman, Fraulein Klegg, as the name tag on her lapel read, sighed, aggrieved.
“They didn’t gas enough of you people,” Fraulein Klegg said to Raffie.
Kip and Raffie left the hotel immediately and took a train back to Paris.
• • •
Raffie said she would never go back to Germany. In fact, she didn’t even want to live in Europe anymore. She wanted to go home to the States. Back in their Paris apartment, she came down with the flu and ran a high fever. Kip gave her aspirin and peppermint tea, kept her in bed, and entertained her by reading Stendahl’s The Charterhouse of Parma aloud to her in French. She said her head and body ached too much for serious fare so he switched to Inspector Maigret. When her fever came down, he went to one of their usual restaurants and brought home hot soups for her, and even a bowl of pot au feu. He gave her a sponge bath, which they both enjoyed, even in her weakened state. When she was fully recovered, Kip took her out for a celebratory meal on a barge in the Seine, where they ate bouillabaisse and drank several bottles of Côte de Rhone.
By March, Raffie was restless and wanted to pursue the research she’d intended for her European trip. She was translating the Italian poets that preceded Dante and needed to study some texts in Florence. Knowing that Kip wouldn’t let her go alone, she conceived a plan with her best girlfriend, who happened to be on a Fulbright at the Sorbonne and needed to escape from her abusive husband. The two had the pensione reserved in Florence and their railway tickets bought. But the friend made the mistake of writing to Raffie at Kip’s address, Kip intercepted the letter, a scene followed, and Raffie threatened to call the cops. Kip caved and offered to drive her and the girlfriend to Florence. The girlfriend patched it up with her husband, so Raffie and Kip drove across the Alps to Italy. Kip was beginning his downward spiral, which included his yearly bout with peptic ulcers. They stopped not in Florence but in a town on the Adriatic, where Kip went into a hospital run by nuns and Raffie slept in a bed next to him. She went to the bathroom at night to brush her teeth and smelled the sweet, putrid smell of the patients’ feces samples placed on the windowsills to keep cool, a smell she never quite forgot.
A nun taught her how to give Kip the injections he would need after leaving the hospital. The sister took an orange and showed Raffie the correct way to jab the needle into the dimpled skin of the orange, instructing her to imagine that the orange was Kip’s buttock. Raffie gave Kip her first trial injection in the hospital. Her hand trembled but she went through with it, making the quick jab as the sister had shown her. Kip sat up and said, “That was perfect, Chèrie, it didn’t hurt at all.” From that moment on, she became his nurse. They drove South, stopping only briefly for meals and petrol. Kip had to eat bland foods: “Tutto in bianco,” he told the waiters, and was served spaghetti al burro and steamed vegetables. He said that driving calmed him. He unzipped his fly as he drove and asked Raffie to stroke his dick. This eased the pain. She would have been glad to drive but he wouldn’t hear of it. In Naples Kip was laid up for two weeks and couldn’t leave his bed. Raffie gave him the injections and went out to explore the unfamiliar city. She’d never been that far South and found it exotic, not minding that men grabbed for her in the streets, happy to be free of Kip and his pain. Kip had leased the house in Positano in advance and they moved in the day they arrived.
The house had an unobstructed view of the sea and the terraced gardens below them. These were planted with brightly blooming flowers in dashing colors of red and purple, interspersed with rosemary and oregano that scented the air when the breeze blew in the direction of their patio. The path down to town was steep but Raffie managed to carry a few potted flower plants up, and a nasturtium, which she remembered her father telling her had edible flowers. She planned her day around Kip’s injections, knowing, when she took the long trek to and from the beach, that she must not linger no matter how glorious the day because she had to be home at five for Kip’s injection. Losing track of time would have been easy. It was June and the weather was fine, the beach and coves small idylls with no one around. One day, however, she made a shallow dive into the water and came up in a miniature oil slick. This ended her beach experience for the week.
The next eight days of steady rain were unbearable in a leaky house without window glass. The damp and cold were depressing even if you weren’t in the depressive phase of manic-depressive disease. Kip was practically catatonic. Raffie tried to read contemporary Italian novels. Instead, she wrote letters to Gianni. She thought about the West Village bookstore where they lost each other browsing in the tall stacks, and were then reunited some-time later, as if after a long absence. “What did you find?” “What did you find?” they said, turning their heads to sideways to read the titles of the books each had chosen. Those were intimate times, even though they were in a public place. Both Raffie and Gianni were scholars and translators; Gianni was translating Dante; this was work they thrived on. Raffie missed her work and she missed Gianni. She missed her life. This interlude with Kip was drawing to its finish.
He called to her from the bedroom “I need you,” he said.
“But I’m depressed and lonely myself — how can I possibly help you?”
“You have to!”
“I don’t think so. I gave you your injection. You should be comfortable for a while.”
She put on her rain jacket and stepped outside. The rain had stopped and she began walking down the path to the village. She could hear Kip calling her. He was a baby, she thought, he was reduced to infancy — eating, sleeping, complaining. Or maybe he was an old man. It was all the same to her. She smelled the clove-scented geraniums some people planted in their gardens and the wild rosemary that grew at the side of the path. With the rain stopped, the evening invigorated her and she walked faster, slipping occasionally on the slick stones of the path, laughing when she fell and getting up quickly so no one would see.
• • •
Raffie’s parents were traveling to Florence from Positano the next day. Kip felt sick after his big frittura lunch and went to bed for the afternoon so Raffie had dinner with her father and stepmother and sat in their hotel suite with her stepmother while her father was out for his evening stroll. The parents were leaving by hired car in the morning. Raffie watched her stepmother brushing out her long thin hair, seated at the dressing table with a triptych mirror and a matching, amber-colored hand mirror on the dressing table. Raffie’s stepmother wore a switch by day to make her chignon fuller. She didn’t color her hair, however, leaving it the natural gray and near-black color. She’d told Raffie that the switch was made of human hair, her own mother’s hair. Raffie had asked to finger it, which felt both creepy and sad, to think that it was a dead person’s hair, but a loved dead person, her stepmother’s mother.
Raffie asked if her stepmother, Alice, was enjoying her stay in Positano. It was her first time in Italy. She was from Vermont. Raffie’s father had met her there at a farmer’s market when they were both buying overripe organic tomatoes for sauce. Alice ate all organic food and used all-natural products in the house and on her body. Raffie’s father had moved from Boston to Alice’s home in Vermont. She had an organic vegetable garden and started seedlings in the house in leaky wooden flats. She also made cuttings of her house plants, which she put in jam jars on the windowsills to root. At night in winter she and Alice’s father slept at about thirty-six degrees Fahrenheit in the bedroom, under a down comforter. Alice said that you got a better night’s sleep in a cold room.
Alice said she loved Italy and everything about it. She was looking forward to seeing Florence. You’ll enjoy it, Raffie said, if you don’t mind that it’s humid. She’d be too busy to notice, Alice said.
“Would it be all right with you if I tag along?” Raffie said.
“Not at all. But is Kip well enough?”
“Actually…I was planning on taking a little break from Kip.”
“…But I — we — wouldn’t want to come between you two….” Alice said.
“I’d appreciate it if you would, Alice. It would be a great favor to me. I need to get back home to Gianni.”
“…Will you speak to your father about this?”
“Of course. I was planning to.”
Her father was relieved. He said it was about time. He’d never thought much of the arrangement with Kip but he was waiting for Raffie to make a move. They could put her on a train for Genoa from Florence, he said. Raffie’s father had a tall thin body. His frame was hollowed out, looking as though a persistent wind had blown in his direction for all the years of his life like some trees that happen to be exposed to unforgiving weather. He spoke in a whispery voice, the air seemingly expressed from his lungs. But he was lighthearted.
“And you, Dad? You’re happy?”
“Never been more so.”
“You don’t mind all the — organics?”
“No, why should I?”
“No reason — forget that I mentioned it.”
They talked about plans for sightseeing in Florence, what to show a first-time visitor like Alice.
“She’s easy to please,” Raffie’s father said.
Raffie slept with Kip that night but left early in the morning before he was awake. She walked down to the grocery store and arranged with Antonio, who was driving them to Naples, for his wife Luisa to give Kip his injections. Of course Luisa knew how,
Antonio said, she’d cared for her ailing mother for years and her grandmother before that. Raffie imagined Luisa’s flat dirty hands on Kip’s buttock, jabbing the needle into his flesh and Kip whining into the pillow, “But where is my Chèrie?”
Gianni listened to the news on WBAI assiduously for weeks and then he would stop for days, neglecting even to turn the radio on. When he was in his listening phase, if you spoke to him while the news was on, he would look at you through a watery expression and answer with something noncommittal like, “Really?” or “Is that so?” And if you tried to draw him out on whatever the subject was, you would guess correctly that he hadn’t heard you at all. He was in his listening phase when Raffie climbed the four flights to their apartment and turned the key in the lock. He didn’t hear the sound of the key turning or even the door opening. The radio was loud.
Raffie hadn’t written or called to say she was coming home because she wasn’t sure what to expect. She had a small suitcase, which she put down on the floor in the entryway and closed the door behind her. The rest of her baggage was downstairs in the foyer.
“Gianni! Are you going to say hello?”
He was slicing radishes at the kitchen counter and listening to WBAI. The radio was loud. His head whipped around and he took four quick steps toward her.
“You’re home!” he said. “I missed you.”
His arms held her tightly. Their hello kiss lasted a long time.
“I missed you, too.”
“You cut your hair,” he said.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s okay. Shall I bring your bags up?”
“We can both go,” she said.
“And you’ll tell me all about Europe.”
“Yes…how is your translation going?”
They couldn’t talk while they were carrying the suitcases up the four flights because they were out of breath. They put the suitcases in the bedroom. Raffie sat down on one of the hard leather suitcases that had been with her all over France and Italy, part of Germany, and even London over New Year’s with Kip. Gianni sat down on another.
“Raphaella amore, I have something to tell you.”
“In all this time apart, I have done some thinking. About myself.”
Raffi was getting impatient.
“And here is the answer to the question I asked myself about myself. I love you very much and want to spend the rest of my life with you!”
Raffi jumped up and sat beside him on the suitcase.
“Likewise!” she whispered.
• • •
Several weeks later, Raffie had a letter from a mutual friend of hers and Kip’s in Rome to tell her that Kip had left Positano and come to Rome, very ill. He had gone into the hospital in Rome for the sleep cure, in which you’re put into a comatose state and fed intravenously for eight days while the ulcer is supposed to heal. The friend wrote pointedly that Raffie should have been there with Kip during this ordeal.
Raffie thought of Kip with distant compassion.
She wrote back to the friend and thanked her for her letter. She sent her best wishes to Kip and said that she hoped he was on the mend.