By Melita Schaum.
Of course the cup had to break.
After all her efforts to keep this place clean and undamaged, to leave with a thank you and the lightest of footprints, to show them to be good people who might be invited back, to be a faithful steward, tenant, guest, neighbor, citizen, tourist, foreigner, wife.
Yes. It had to break.
The cup was blue like the Mediterranean that unfurled below them at lunch today, in a tourist restaurant perched on a cliff where they ate mushy canned peas, grilled dorada and boiled potatoes, where the menu was written in faulty English and had a Union Jack printed at the top. They looked down at their meals, and looked down at the sea, and for a moment—but just for a moment—she thought she was going to cry. Then the waitress came by with fish knives and little foil packets of refresher wipes, and a group of German cyclists clomped noisily across the deck in their biking shoes, and she smiled at her husband and they began to eat.
The cursive on the bottom of the cup, before it broke, read Arcos de la Frontera. She knew that was one of Andalusia’s white towns, balanced like a porcelain city on a precipice. Below it the four banks of a split river converged. It was a town on edge in every sense, a vertiginous frontier, fought over, occupied time and again for its two great treasures. Water. And perspective.
Like the town the cup came from, sometimes she felt under siege. There were forces far larger than the two of them at work—gravity, fate, time. She imagined this moment, this precursor to whatever was next, as a container spinning in space, expanding in time. Like hope, also once a vessel intact. Like desperation, a galaxy of shards.
On the news they watch the tide of immigrants from Guatemala penetrating Mexico’s southern border en route to Texas, a phalanx driving through the black-uniformed Mexican police who are half-hearted in their efforts to hold them back. Cordons shatter, the screen splinters into a mosaic of humanity, thousands of broken lives, faces, histories, a tide of living fragments flowing north, set into motion by the physics of hope and need.
Here on the island she feels far from all that tragedy. Even events in Europe, just a small sea away, seem distant and unreal. Their house is the oldest finca in the village, perched on the highest spot in their remote mountain town, and from their terrace they can see the island’s one road snake through the forest of pine and olive, past ancient rock outcroppings, along fertile meadows, to gleaming white sand and an aquamarine sea. Some days she imagines they can see all the way to Spain. Or all the way back to their own life, oceans away, a blue distance in which the future is still safe, a homeland before exile, a house not yet broken into and robbed.
The cup had to break. And break on their last day. After she had cleaned so well and had typed up and printed out her note to their hosts thanking them again for this little piece of paradise. How much they’d enjoyed their time here. How they had appreciated the lovely house. How restful their stay had been. How they hoped to be able to do it again sometime. Exchange homes. Exchange lives.
The house had lizards indoors—small ones, not frightening, but quick in a mildly disturbing way. They would be there, motionless, like wall ornaments, and then they’d be gone. When they scuttled across window-glass their feet made a dry, rattling sound like wind in grass.
Outside, the island’s wild goats roamed in coats of extraordinary colors, feeding on sagebrush and thistles, sometimes clattering on the terrace. They were strong creatures, healthy and wary, and they moved in family groups that often included a tiny, leaping kid that bucked and kicked the air joyfully like a burst of life inhabiting a body too small for it.
There were two cats in the house that she fed as part of the arrangement. One was a superb young male, an orange Persian, proud and independent, returning only for his evening food. The other was an ancient calico female with barely any teeth, but with an operatic voice she’d use to wail for food and love. It got on her nerves in the morning, the yowling of the crone, insatiable, bottomless. On their second morning her husband, disoriented by travel and time change, stood in the kitchen calling and calling to her to help with his medications—he couldn’t remember what was what and when and how much, and the cat was snaking around her ankles keening, and the coffee was burbling and smoking in the unfamiliar pot, and her husband said in a moment of lucidity, “I’m just like that cat, aren’t I?” and she laughed and said “You are not like that cat, not one bit,” but later she would think of what he’d said and, like a little string pulling on a part of her, know it was true.
That was what truth was—a little string pulling, pulling until it brought down the edifice, until it shattered the vessel.
When the cup broke, as it had to, out spilled all its contents. In it were the cheerful text messages she had been writing to friends—photos of lunches and coastlines and evenings on the terrace, editing out the shots in which he looked too tired, too confused, trying unsuccessfully to put on a jacket or decipher a road sign or menu.
Blue harbors with sailboats. Her brown, bare feet at the end of a chaise overlooking their stunning view. Out of these snippets she wove a lovely trip, a vacation just enviable enough to make her friends smile, not enough to invoke the wrath of gods on the lookout for braggarts. A cupful of wishes. Sailboats. Sunsets. Memories.
What did the cup mean to the woman whose house this was? Someone she had never met but over the weeks seemed to know so well, knowing her artwork, her toiletries, how she folded her linens, where she kept the best knives. Semaphores—one woman to another, across an ocean. One wife to another. Old photographs, a portrait of the woman as a child, hanging in the bedroom, Vermeer-like and serene. Morning light on a girl’s face, luminous, innocent, intact.
They shared similar tastes, she and this woman, a moth orchid by the window, some art books she recognized, a fondness for small worn kilims and a wooden desk braceleted with coffee mug rings. Was the cup of great value to this woman? It was part of a pair, and this made her heart wither—the breaking of a set, his and hers, something they might have bought together. On their honeymoon. On vacation. His. Hers. She felt she’d violated a trust, a bond. In one moment of bad luck and gravity something lovely had exploded on the tiles of the floor in such a way as to send shards detonating across the room, so that the recently cleaned floor sparkled dangerously and when her husband, confused by the noise, came in from the garden in his bare feet she screamed at him “Stay still! Don’t move!”
She was startled at how her voice and hands shook. It was only a cup, for God’s sake. But the horror in her heart, her premonition and alarm, were real.
There was a lizard on the wall, and then on the window, scuttling across the dawn sky on its pale star-feet. They lived behind the paintings. She realized this during her second week there. Behind the matador and bullfight, the fruity still life, the table of corrupt politicians, the Matisse-like breakfast scene, the cityscape, the field at dusk, the gentle portrait of a seated child, behind each beautiful image—who knew how many vermin?
He lies in bed and shivers in the mornings, a tremor that seems to come from somewhere deep, that sometimes seems as if it would shake him to pieces. She cannot fathom his misery. He has almost stopped speaking—to her, to anyone. A carousel of broken language going around and around somewhere in his brain. It’s his face, contorted into a stranger’s mask of pain, that she cannot stand, that whips her into a frenzy of rescue, trying this and that, music, walks, tea, massage, deep breathing, swaddling, yoga, drugs—a hysteria of love and helplessness. Nothing brings him back together.
Some days she gets angry. Maybe at him, maybe not. Wonders if he relishes all this attention, resists relief because it might mean the little spoon of love would drop, the cup pass from his lips. It’s ungenerous and untrue, she knows this. Still the anger is a sleeping old thing that wakes from time to time, hungry to be heard.
In her support group back home she listened in horror at dispatches from the far side of this disease—her future grimacing at her, beckoning from the abyss. Delusions, psychosis, aggression, incontinence, paralysis, a freakshow of emergency rooms and crises and heartbreak. One man in the group, exhausted and gritty with rage, snarled “My wife doesn’t have this disease. We both do.”
Two hands playing the strains of one melody. His. Hers.
But I am strong, she thinks, and this will not defeat me. I can control the situation I find myself in. I can take it on, I can master it. I can bring kindness and relief. I can heal, even if I cannot cure. I can keep us whole. I can put the sailboats back in the harbor, the sun back in the sky. I can hold it together. I can hold it up. I can hold on.
The truth was a little tug, pulling something towards an edge, then off the edge. The truth, she thought, is not integrity. It is pieces, fragments. Oneness is the lie.
She reclines on the terrace, her husband in a chair under wild oak trees far to her right, trying to hold his ground in the new universe his body has made for him. His brain—not soul, not self, but matter that can corrupt and fail. This morning he almost fainted in the kitchen. Dizzy. Exhausted. Miserable. Now he sat immobile in the chair she’d set out for him in the shade under the oaks. Too resigned even to stand and let her reposition it so that he could get a view. Eyes shut. Head back. His gaze turned inward, drifting between dust and stars.
Where can she find a place to stand on this featureless, shifting shore? She offers the obvious: coffee, breakfast, help with his socks, a chair in the shade. This trip. The beauty of the hills, the house, the boats in the bay—all lost on him. She offers him blue water and white sand, while her own two feet are in quicksand, sinking.
She surveys the scene before her: a vista of mountains, sea, horizon. And God forgive her, she longs to fly.
One day they drove to the coast, but not before she slipped and fell in the driveway mud, making him laugh for the first time this trip. The coves were lovely but clotted with tourists, fringed with condos and cars. They stopped in Sant Elm as the clouds were gathering, the sea a streak of shining silver under blue thunder. They hurried into a nearby restaurant for shelter and lunch, and she was glad to see it was quiet, until she realized it was quiet because it was empty and it was empty because it was alarmingly overpriced. But they stayed and had huge, delicious mussels in red pepper sauce, and salad with goat cheese, bread and olives and the island’s strange savory garlic paste, oli-et-ali, like a pungent white cream.
When they came back out the sky was vast and smudged, still full-bellied with unrained rain, dark with the premonition of a storm. How quickly it shifted, this island weather—one minute the sky was a bright mist, the next it gathered into a blue so ominous and opaque it swallowed the horizon. The island off the coast called the Dragon’s Back, in whose shade they had eaten their mussels and salads, was now hidden in a Turner-esque veil of yellow and blue.
Like the hazy paintings of the woman who owned the house, her father’s work, a man who had been something of a known Spanish artist in his day. Long dead now. Even his form of painting had gone out of fashion, a kind of nostalgia no one worked with anymore, a soft brush of oils, smudged lines, a delicate fog of features that seemed to mimic this humid, shifting climate.
As they got back to the car the first raindrops began to fall, loud splats of water slapping the windshield like paintballs.
The next day the clouds blew off, leaving an aura of bright humid sky and the lazy buzz of insects. After breakfast she found an army of ants in the house, swarming the kitchen, and she killed them all, but by lunchtime they were back because ants are impermanent but their track is eternal. Like her husband’s symptoms which she squashed one by one only to see others return. His condition a relentless trail, invisible, potent, always moving in the same direction.
But there were also mornings of peace—how could she describe this? The sudden serenity of sitting on the terrace to catch the first rays of sun, the old cat beside her, quiet now. The wild goats bleating in the valley below, tiny and toylike, and the listless distant bark of a dog, a harmless sound as it drifts over the hazy distance and fades. Birds gossiping in the almond tree. The white light gradually growing hotter and turning the color of the stones.
What is the sound of contentment? The purr of a cat warming her old bones in the light, sitting as statuesque as Isis, suddenly elegant and aristocratic despite her tatty fur and rheumy eyes. The splendid male who makes an appearance, swishing his mink-stole tail, gleaming with muscle and mischief. He prances across the patio, arrogant and unafraid, a burr in his tail, a glint in his eye, then scampers into the dappled shadows beneath olive trees.
And the hills, yesterday alive with roiling mists after the rains, still as pictures now in the growing day’s heat, silvered and hazy like the gossamer of an old portrait. Sentiment and nostalgia. In the living room hangs a painting of a matador and bull in the ring, picador raised, preparing to administer the noble death, but delicate and almost intimate, caught in a posture of balance and repose. This morning suspended, her coffee in hand, the cat idling its soft engine at her feet, sharing a moment’s bliss of companionship and sun.
In the afternoons her husband lies down to rest in the bedroom overlooking the sea. White sheets, sun slanting sharply onto terra cotta tiles, green shutters holding back the veil of bright light but letting in a sweet breeze from the coast, carrying scents of red dust and olives and grapevines rusted with autumn.
She sits downstairs and sips the dense gold of a local wine. A promise broken—he had asked her not to drink—but it tastes so right here in the terrace shade, a wine the color of stones and lengthening light. She’ll only have one glass, and she’ll hide the bottle. He’d once told her that even a good marriage might be salted with little lies, and although it made her uneasy at the time it seemed now to give her license.
He was tired again today, and they had had to abandon their plans to go to Palma, the Miro exhibit, the museums. Instead, they took a slow walk into their village, not much more than a scattering of houses, chicken coops and a church, and a plaza where they found a bar that served tapas. A table of four old men gossiped in the corner; one man with larynx problems had a voicebox he held to his throat, but his ailment didn’t impede him—in fact, it made him the loudest of the bunch, loud as the green-checked shirt he wore, cackling and crackling the same jokes he’d likely been telling for forty years.
Another regular, a quiet old man nursing his cerveza and the sporting section of the news, sat by the window coddled by waitresses who sauntered past bringing him small plates of food. A television set above the bar, without sound, flickered into and out of a soccer match before losing the signal. Outside on the plaza a few families and couples sat on stone walls, laughing sociably, kissing, talking in the smooth, round island dialect.
It was nearing the end of their trip, one of the last fine days they’d have before rain set in for good. She had to confess, she was a little bored. A beautiful afternoon, and the sting of disappointment at the city pleasures she’d never get to see. But she was resigned, trying to match her pace to his. What would she be doing now if she were on her own? An inane question. Not worth considering. She put it from her mind. Another thing to hide in the cabinet.
Outside the sky was blustery, enamel blue patched with clouds whipped across the horizon by a crazy warm southern wind. A wind from Africa, Lybia, the red sands, the heat of another continent. They called it the Jugo and it blew in change and restlessness.
What did she really know about this island? Or the woman whose house they lived in, for that matter? Or about the goats and cats, this borrowed life, all these imagined sympathies?
When the cup broke, what was the loss? It had to happen, despite her care and watchfulness, or because of her care and watchfulness, as if something were performing a part long written. Maybe the cup meant nothing, an old souvenir from a trip to Spain, nothing of interest, and all her fantasies were just gildings on a meaningless thing.
She decided she would never tell anyone. She’d hide the pieces in the trash, buried under the other remnants of their time there, secreted away. Like guilt. Like truth. Things with sharp edges that shouldn’t be left around.
On their last morning they decide to drive the road on the island’s northern shore, high above the ocean, a ribbon of asphalt winding cliff-side over that vast, impossible blue. Just a short trip, because he woke again in pain and as she helped him to the car he fell against her for a moment, almost taking them both down into the red mud.
In the car she watches his knuckles whiten on the door handle as he tries to steady himself against the road’s curves, although she drives slowly, tries to brace himself against pain’s dance that will go on and on until some savage music stops that neither of them can hear. The road unravels like a melody, a plotline. She has a strong desire for one long moment to turn the wheel, drive them both off the cliff, die shattered on the rocks below. Quick. Get it over. End it. Do it. Now. She loves him so much it feels like impact, like something bursting after a long downward fall.
Back at the house she is gentle with him. We’ll be leaving soon; you go rest. They take their last walk across the terrace that is theirs and not theirs. The light is so beautiful, foreign yet familiar, drawing everything together like a wake of bright water closing over their passage.
She is already imagining the account she’ll give of their holiday, the time they had, as he takes a seat under the oak trees and she goes inside to begin to clean.
MELITA SCHAUM is author of five books: two on the poet Wallace Stevens, two on women’s issues, and a collection of memoir essays, A Sinner of Memory. Her poetry, short fiction and literary essays have appeared in numerous journals, and three of her essays have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. She received her MFA. in Creative Writing from Stanford in 1980 and was professor of modern literature and creative writing at the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1984 to 2014. She lives in Berkeley, California.