The problem, my Aunt Stella suggests, is that I should not be wearing my green heart pendant. I tell her it is made of Murano glass, to try and distract. And such a shade of green, I say, must be rare in nature. It is no common, grass-blade green. A peacock’s tail feathers might strut such a green; I would have to lay the heart and feather together to compare.
Stella shakes her head and taps at her watch.
Every New Year’s Eve, I visit my Aunt Stella, the benevolent therapist. A health check, she calls it. The tradition started during my first term at university. A difficult term. Whenever I think on that time, I see fish-tank glass and cloudy pea-green water. Now, five years later, I still knock at the door of her L-shaped office. I squirm into her pink armchair and wish for the velveteen chaise longue I once pictured there. Before the ritual started, I imagined a Hollywood glamour to her work; I looked forwards to the fascination in her half-closed eyes; I thought I would be unravelled and explained, manipulated like soft dough into something new and healthy.
Today, for the first time, I tell myself it is possible. No caveats. There is a static in the room I have never felt before.
Why, she asks again, am I wearing this pendant, a gift from my last boyfriend? Seven months have passed, yet I clasp this token around my neck where it clings like seaweed. Perhaps, she says, I am still attached to my loss, still seeking resolution. The independence I wrap as a banner around me is a flimsy pretence. I do not mention Rob to her: I do not tell her I have an alternative now.
The pendant, I reply, is simply a pretty piece of jewellery. My favourite. I do not regard it as a gift from my ex-boyfriend. The veined greenness is what I love—the veined greenness which reminds me of Venice. Sometimes, when I hold it up to a window’s light, scenes ripple, iridescent, inside the curling glass. Gondolas drift, sober black, towards violet and turquoise sea mists. The canal water laps across mossy piazza steps. A cat meows from a second-floor window and pokes her marmalade head between trembling red geraniums. Plum-black bottles of wine turn glass-green as hands lift and pour. Baskets of bread vanish into crumbs. Matchstick people jostle for scraps of sunlight in St. Mark’s square. I stand on a bridge and wonder if and how Venetians play pooh sticks.
‘So, Anna...What do you remember in particular about that last summer holiday with your ex?’ Stella asks.
‘Time passed more slowly—’ I answer, ‘as it always does on holidays.’
She nods and smiles, waiting for me to say more. This, of course, is the game that she plays. The game she always plays with me, at least.
I am not sure what else to say. She does not push me yet. She has not divined the right question to ask. It will come, though. She always finds the right question for me, in the end. That is the reward of this ritual.
I shrug my shoulders. ‘I suppose you feel more yourself on holiday, don’t you?’
‘More alive...’ I offer.
She smiles. ‘That’s nice. You feel more alive.’
I glance over at the moon-white clock. Still forty minutes to go. Forty more minutes of her nodding silver bob and her patient echoing of my words. It doesn’t seem a hard job. Easy money, some might say; but all good artists are deceptive.
I reach for the glass of water on the table and take three long sips.
‘I think—I suppose what I most remember about this holiday was what he said...’
‘He split up with me.’
‘While you were there? On the holiday?’
I unclasp the pendant.
We were in a trattoria.
Locals ate there, which Paul said was the sign of a good Italian restaurant. Sturdy wooden tables fed squabbling families and murmuring couples. A line of Italian men, including a blonde-haired gondolier, lounged at the bar. They sipped at tiny glasses of red wine and deposited crostini onto their tongues as though wafers of holy communion. A waitress sailed towards us and clattered two steaming plates onto our table. I leaned in over my spaghetti alla carbonara, plump with chunks of pancetta. The egg-yellow sauce oozed between the prongs of my fork. Paul sliced through a bloody steak.
‘You’d have yours well-done, would you?’ he raised an eyebrow.
‘Did you have an argument?’
‘No, nothing like that. He just told me one evening that it was over.’
‘He said I was too lower-middle class.’
She says nothing; she remains the therapist rather than my indignant, protective Aunt Stella. I wonder how long it took her to learn such silence. She never draws breath, never widens her eyes. All the stories she must have heard. Perhaps my story this year seems ordinary in comparison. Ever since the first year, since my parents’ deaths, the stories I tell her are all ordinary in comparison.
She wants his name. Already, he grows in her imagination. A character in a story, leather-bound with woodcut illustrations.
‘Yes, Paul—what class did he think he was?
‘Upper-middle, I suppose.’
‘The difference was important?’
Her blue eyes widen now. I don’t know if she’s asking me or him. She pushes her shoulders back against her chair. I’m not sure if I’m meant to say of course not—of course I don’t agree with his absurd snobbery. Or yes, he thought it mattered. His opinion mattered.
I shrug my shoulders again.
She is the first person to hear this story. I have not told Rob, unsure what it might mean to tell him, whether it would pull him closer or send him farther away. I realise I am testing it out on Stella first and I want something more definite from her. A caustic laugh. Eyelids which droop contempt. I want her to feel on my behalf, to take my part as I never did.
‘You were shocked?’
‘Of course, I didn’t know people thought like that. In categories. Boxes.’
I lift the glass heart up against my chin and stare down into its flaming green.
Once, he tested me on my vocabulary.
We were sitting on the mattress in his attic room. Books grew in piles all over the dusty floorboards. A torn condom wrapper peeped from under the pillows. He wanted to know what I called the different rooms of a house. He hoped I might mention a drawing room or a study and refrain from a ‘front room’.
I think I passed that test, but I may be wrong.
Another time, when I took him to a friend’s party, he stopped in front of the crammed bookcases. ‘How quaint,’ he craned his neck forwards, as though peering at a dying wasp. ‘They keep their books in the living room... I thought Ben would have had a bigger house. More rooms.’
Stella clears her throat. ‘What did you say to him?’
My fingers close around the heart.
‘I can’t remember what I said.’
She shifts in her chair. She thinks I am weak. She thinks I should have picked up the carafe of red wine and poured it over his pompous head.
‘He said it was unbearable.’
I remember how I wished for a cardigan, sensible taupe cashmere, as he said his words and stared at my cleavage. A woman’s body, his eyes said, should cower in public places; my skin should only curve and goosepimple in his book-strewn bedroom.
‘It’s so fucking banal, Anna,’ he said. ‘You’ll drink cheap wine. You mispronounce words. You listen to shit music. You smile at these bloody kitsch accordion players,’ he gestured towards the canal outside.
My cheeks burned. I had become a list. A list of habits and pass-me-down behaviours. Not choices or desires. Just traces left by the people who once influenced or belonged to me. That is what he made of my history. And he made it burn, burn under my skin.
His cheeks puffed. ‘I don’t think I can take it anymore. Cheap Murano pendants and well-done steaks...’
I wanted to laugh. Cue the lights, camera and canned laughter. Instead, I walked.
I walked back to our pensione alone and threw myself onto the double bed that the maid had smoothed and preened for us. I wondered a moment how it felt for her to tidy away all those creases every morning, all those imprints of strangers’ passions and separations, sleeps and sleeplessness. She did not give it a second thought, perhaps. And I would follow her example. My hand did not stray towards his pale blue pillow. My body did not long for the smell or voice or touch of him. Already, I imagined returning home. Already, I thought I might sleep with the blonde boy from my Boccaccio seminar class. I might start to paint again, in watercolour. And I would learn to use oils, the thickest, gaudiest oils.
‘Too lower-middle class,’ Stella frowns at me. ‘It’s a very odd thing to say...’
‘And do you think that was the real reason?’ she asks.
I stare across at her and she stares back, all blue-eyed patience—the teacher who thinks the weight of silence will somehow push you towards the answer.
‘Why else would he have said it? It’s not exactly softening the blow, is it?’
She narrows her eyes. ‘And most people do try to soften the blow, don’t they? But he didn’t...’
I rub at the nape of my neck. ‘It made him feel better, I suppose—to blame me.’
She leans forward in her chair, clasping both hands around her knees. ‘And why do you think he needed to feel better?’
I glance towards the clock.
She persists. ‘He already thought he was so much better... He needed to prove it?’
‘Maybe,’ I say.
‘Yet you still wear his pendant. He treated you with contempt, but you don’t seem angry with him. Not then. Not now.’
She’s back on track now.
‘I wear it because it’s my pendant. I chose it’
She arches an eyebrow.
‘Like I said, it reminds me of Venice.’
She leans back in her chair. ‘It never reminds you of him? His criticisms?’
My Aunt Stella wants there to be a problem where there is none. It is my own doing: I have come to her again this year, as though I still agree to the idea of fixing. But the truth is my skin no longer burns. My skin no longer burns and I will not visit Stella’s office again.
‘This pendant reminds me how I loved Venice. That’s all. Even after that evening. Maybe even more. He made no difference to that.’
Her eyes fix on the Murano heart, which I still cup in my palm. We both stare into the sun-fed greenness and I wonder if she sees what I see and hear again, taste and feel again.
Columned white palazzi cast their shadows across a red piazza floor. Clusters of geranium wind around the white columns and trail upwards to rows of darkened windows. I look up and know that inside all those white-walled apartments, behind all those green and black shutters, there lives a jungle of colour. Flowers unfurl into hungry life. Burnt brown pollen powders windowsills and tabletops. Mottled spiders scuttle across cool marble floors. A radio chatters beautiful open vowels onto terracotta tiles. Plates clatter. I smell the beginnings of a tomato-red ragù.
And a peek of this life is enough—was enough. The cascading purple geraniums were enough.
The last three days of that summer holiday, I wandered alone through the streets. I sat at café tables and drank prosecco. I bought apples and grapes from stalls and ate them on steps splattered with all colours of gelati. I could have lived those days forever. I thought I was the happiest I would ever be.
I do not tell any of this to Stella.
I simply say what I now know.
‘For a few days I was nobody. Just another foreigner. Free. It was wonderful.’
‘You liked being on your own?’
‘A blank canvas?’ she frowns.
‘No, not blank... Just changing. Unfinished. A work in progress.’
She smiles a little and then frowns again.’ And now, back home? Seven months later? You don’t feel like that anymore?’
I reach for the glass of water and I think of Rob. His blue eyes wait; his words from last night repeat; his name is honey-salt on the tip of my tongue. And it would be so easy and delicious to speak his name.
‘Things have changed? You feel unsafe again?’ she asks.
I close my eyes. She has asked the question.
Sunlight curls like caramel leaves upon the turquoise water. A gondola glides towards the open sea. Behind me a man in a black cap, an accordion slung across his belly, begins to play an Italian love song. He plays for the tourists, of course. And it is beautiful.
Rob sits beside me on the canal steps. His fingers draw soft circles on my bare shoulder. The sun burns into our sandalled feet. A purple petal drifts down from the window-box sky and catches a moment in the crook of his arm. He leans in and kisses the back of my neck. A dark-haired woman throws back the shutters in the palazzo opposite; I see into the heart of her house. Red and gold flowers, orchids perhaps, twist inside a green vase. Cinnamon walls flicker as though they hold the sun inside them.
Rob turns to me as the song plays and asks me to translate. He listens, without interruption, through my explanations, pauses, ambiguities. When I am finished, I pick the petal from his arm and twirl it between my thumb and forefinger. I cast it into the water which laps so clean below us, and it drifts, a veined purple heart. He smiles. It is one of those moments when life unmakes you. No I. No he. Colours swirl. Light moves like water.
‘You don’t feel that alive anymore?’ Stella asks.
Rob’s words whisper inside my head again, like a conscience, a better conscience. I open my eyes. The green pendant glows violet in my hand.
‘Oh, I’m alive,’ I say.